Government Digital Service Podcast
Government Digital Service Podcast #20: Celebrating 2 years of the Local Digital Declaration

Government Digital Service Podcast #20: Celebrating 2 years of the Local Digital Declaration

June 29, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer at GDS. And today we’re going to be talking about the Local Digital Declaration. This is a set of guiding principles that help support local authorities, of all sizes and capabilities, to deliver great digital services and platforms that meet the needs of their users. And since it launched 2 years ago, 223 public sector organisations have signed up to it. 

 

And to tell me more about the work the declaration has done is Lisa Jeffrey and May-N Leow. So welcome both to the podcast, please could you tell me who you are, where you work and how you’re involved with the Local Digital Declaration. 

 

Lisa Jeffery:

So yeah, I'm Lisa Jeffery. I'm a Regional Relationship Manager for Government Digital Service, GDS, I'm based in Leeds. And we're here to help open doors and raise awareness of the support that's available from GDS and to connect people where it's beneficial to do so to support digital transformation. I started working at GDS in May 2018, and that's just a couple months before the Local Digital Declaration launched in July 2018, and I've been involved ever since then really over the last 2 years. 

 

May-N Leow:

Hi everyone. I’m May-N Leow, and Head of the Local Digital Collaboration Unit. So almost a year now at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government [MHCLG], and yeah, Lisa is a fantastic champion of, of the declaration and we love working with her and GDS.

 

So I’ve actually seen it from both sides. So when I was working in the council in Southwark, we were co-signatories of the declaration, we also applied for the funds - so I have that perspective of what it feels like to be in the council. So yeah, it’s been really fantastic seeing it from both sides of, of the pond.

 

Laura Stevens:

So I described the Local Digital Declaration briefly in the introduction. But I’d like to hear a bit more about it. It’s a set of 5 principles - could we talk through them?

 

May-N Leow:

So it's, it’s, as you say kind of Laura, it’s, we’ve got 5 principles in the declaration, and it's based around the GDS Service Manual as well as the Technology Code of Practice. 

 

But the key things for us is that obviously we want users and citizens need to be first when you know, designing a system and offering good local services. And the second one is around fixing the plumbing - so we want to fix the hard, complex problems. It's not very sexy but it's completely vital for delivering good services. And then we want to design safe, secure and useful ways of sharing information and data and that's even more critical from COVID and what we've learned in the crisis response. And then the fourth one is to kind of demonstrate leadership in creating the conditions for genuine organisational transformation, making sure that it can actually happen. And then lastly, working in the open whenever we can so as many people can learn from, from each other. 

 

So those are kind of, the 5 principles we have in the declaration.

 

Laura Stevens:

So the Local Digital Declaration is a joint initiative from GDS and MHCLG. And can you describe for me who is it for? 

 

Lisa Jeffery:

 

So it's aimed primarily at local authorities and other public sector organisations that meet the requirements of signing the Local Digital Declaration. 

 

I think the Local Digital Declaration is a, is a great example of what can be achieved if, if we all work together. It's co-written by 45 different organisations, so it's really about shared ambition for the future of public services in the internet age. And it's now been signed by 223 different organisations.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you describe some of the councils who have signed it? Sort of, are they big councils, are they small councils, who’s signed up?

 

May-N Leow:

I think it's all across the board. So we have obviously your big city, metropolitan kind of councils right through to your county and district councils. Obviously there are other organisations, other than councils, that have signed up to the declaration, so we're pretty much approaching that three quarter mark of, of all councils in England, which is you know, great and shows the level of ambition that, that councils are, are showcasing in terms of wanting to deliver like modern, amazing services to, to their citizens and community. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I know you, both of you referenced this in the introduction, I wanted to go back in time a bit, looking back to 2018 because it's obviously its 2 year birthday coming up very shortly. So could you tell me, perhaps Lisa from the GDS point of view and May-N from when you were working Southwark Council point of view, why was the Local Digital Declaration created?

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. And, and I would say certainly being on the other side when the Declaration was being created, it was, it was, the need born out from it's kind of like a place, one place can state what does good look like for local services and what the ambition looks like for local services? And certainly in, again, in, in Southwark, I used it as a mechanism to drive forward a lot of things that I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise - so saying here's the declaration, we’ve committed to it, you know other organisations have committed to it and this is the bar that we should try to kind of meet. So using that to say you know, we need to have user research, we need to do-build services in that user-centered way. 

 

Again I could not have done without the Declaration, without kind of the Local Digital Fund. So certainly being a council officer, having something like that, it's just such a powerful mechanism to not only showcase what's possible, what we should be doing but then, but then also sort of say to senior management, this is what we're committing to so let's do it.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

And at the beginning as well, we did, we did some roadshows. I think it was really important that we got out and about around the country when, when we could, and that we could understand each other and work together across local and national government. 

 

Laura Stevens:

You mentioned there about the roadshows, and you mentioned there about how you, it showed you what good looked like specifically for local councils, how important was that creation and collaboration between local and central government?

 

May-N Leow:

I mean, I-I think it was crucial to make something like this actually work, because you, you need both perspectives of organisations from a council side, what central government is trying to achieve, and other organisations like LGA [Local Government Association] as well, that kind of fed into the, the declaration.

 

So it's, it’s not really that MHCLG kind of holds the declaration or is responsible for it, we're just kind of like keeping it for, for the sector at this point in time. And it's very much like a shared commitment and an ownership of, of the declaration. So I think it was really crucial that it was co-written and co-published.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah I-I think I'd agree. As in there's, there's, it's more like a movement of course, than a mandate. So I think we're all on a journey to improve public services and to make things better for people fundamentally - so collaboration and building capability and community and being human centered and understanding how we are connected, are all enablers to that goal really. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And Lisa, so can you explain a bit about your role as a Regional Relationship Manager? Because I know since you've been here for 2 years, you’ve made about, over 40 visits in person to councils?

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yep. So as a Regional Relationship Manager for the Government Digital Service, GDS, based in Leeds, we’re here to sort of open doors to GDS, raise awareness of the support that's available from GDS and to connect people where it's beneficial to support digital transformation. And since the launch of the Local Digital Declaration, I’ve made 40 visits in person to local authorities and I've also met with many more local authorities through communities and events like LocalGovCamp, where the Local Digital Declaration had a launch.

 

It's been really helpful to connect with local authorities and to learn with them and to visit them in their own context. And I've seen the value of that and joining up services, people and places to act as an enabler for collaboration.

 

Laura Stevens:

May-N, I know your team is the Local Digital Collaboration Unit. Can you talk about your work there and also how you saw it from the other side at Southwark?

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. So currently we've got a number of projects that we're funding via the Local Digital Fund. 

 

So we’re funding basically projects to solve common challenges that councils have. So we're currently in round 4 of our funding, so we do it in a stage kind of way, and some of the rounds are open so councils can apply with completely new challenges or new ideas, and some of our rounds are closed - those ones, those rounds are to allow our funded projects to kind of progress to, to the next stage.

 

So we've actually funded 23 projects so far and 100 distinct councils have actually worked collaboratively together on those projects - so we've, we've definitely shown via the fund that you know councils can actually come together and work on common challenges. And like to be completely frank, I, when, when I was still there, I was a bit dubious about this myself, ‘cause everyone knows it's hard - like yeah, everyone wants to kind of share and collaborate together but you know, everyone's got their own day jobs, it takes time, it takes you know resources to actually do collaborative working. 

 

So with, with the fund, it actually managed to bring councils together that we wouldn't have necessarily work together before. So for example, when we were running the housing repairs project in Southwark, we had Lincoln, Gravesham and Lewisham working with Southwark. And we didn't have a relationship from a housing repair side before, but because that was a priority problem for those councils, we actually came together and it worked! 

 

So I think it kind of demonstrates that when those problems are you know, unique but a priority to certain councils, councils will come together to, to solve those common challenges. So I think that's the great thing we've actually seen and proven is that, that is possible as long as we remove and de-risk a lot of those barriers to collaborative working. So obviously that's why we offer the funds so that you know councils with really stretched budgets are not using kind of like their own money and, and resources to actually solve those challenges. And some of these problems are really big for, for just one council to solve. 

 

Lisa Jeffery:

It's been super helpful I think to connect and to learn alongside with local authorities and going to visit them in their context through my visits, and I've seen the value in cross-organisational sort of connections and to join up services, people and places to, to enable the collaboration.  

 

I think it's really helpful what the, what the Local Digital Declaration is doing to sort of highlight the good work that councils are doing, and finding those assets that we can build on together and it's also helping create that space for the people and organisations to create their own value within, within that space. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And this has sort of preempted my next bit of question, because I was gonna ask about what has it allowed to happen over the 2 years.

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. I guess that, that bit about demonstrating the willingness and the ambition in council. So when the Local Digital Fund was first announced and we'd launched the first round, we had 389 expressions of interest which was amazing, and the majority of the ideas were all really sound.

 

And I think that, that bit about, what Lisa was saying, on the amplifying the great work that is happening - most councils just don't have the time to kind of blog and write about the amazing things that they're doing, and a lot of the times they don't think it's amazing. 

 

So I think the, the sharing and the learning from each other can't, can’t be underrated - it's, it's so important, whether they're funded projects or not funded projects, I think it's really important to get all these different approaches out so people can say, ‘yeah that works, that will work for me’, or ‘no I can actually just tweak this kind of approach’, so they're not starting from zero. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think one thing as well, in terms of not starting from zero, we've seen the increased use of common components across local government. Pete Herlihy, in last month's podcast, said we do have nearly as many service teams in local government using GOV.UK Notify as we do in central government. And so, and things like GOV.UK Pay as well, that local government able to pick up and use in their service. And Lisa, I know you've spoken at design calls about, about this as well.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah, absolutely. I think local authorities, they're delivering complex services, there's, there’s limited resources and it's often done at pace in, in these super challenging times - so there's real potential for platforms to improve outcomes. 

 

So for example, yeah Lisa Trickey, at Dorset Council, ran a great session with us the other week about how they are using GOV.UK Notify and Pay within their services. We announced GOV.UK Notify and Pay local authority pilots back in 2017, and then we opened a lot more alongside the launch of the Local Digital Declaration. And since then uptake of these platforms, especially Notify, has grown a lot as you say, in local government. And there does seem to be a universal willingness as May-N said, among Local Digital Declaration projects to be using government platforms - so that's just fantastic to see. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you've teed that up very nicely, because we now have a clip from Lisa Trickey. 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

So I am Lisa Trickey. I was appointed last summer as the Service Manager for Digital Strategy and Design at Dorset Council. So we're a relatively new council. We were only formed on the 1 April last year, and prior to that I worked in the County Council and I was, I've always pretty much been involved in technology and digital work. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So as you said Dorset is a new council, and in a blog post you wrote, by signing the Local Digital Declaration in the summer of 2018, “it was great timing for us because it aligned with our digital aspirations, work we were already doing and has enabled digital to be at the heart of the new Dorset Council that is being formed”. So can you talk a bit more about that, how it's helped you? 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

We, we were really keen. we wanted to create this brand new council you know taking the best of the bits of the work from previous councils but we wanted to create something new and different. But obviously on day one we didn't have all the policies and strategies that you would normally have in place for a new council. So the declaration for me in particular has been that mandate that I can reference, I can hook the work onto and I can talk about to the organisation. 

 

We were able to create dedicated capacity for digital and change. So we've got that dedicated capacity to help the organisation to adopt digital but what was really important is we didn't want it to be seen as technology - we wanted it to be seen as something different to that. And from my perspective for digital to be a success it has to permeate through everything in the organisation.

 

But there is this really fine balance all the time between technology and then bringing it back to people and designing services. So the other thing that we've done is celebrated Services Week. So that's been a brilliant initiative from GDS because actually when we started to celebrate Services Week, which we've done for 2 years, we actually had a different set of

people coming to the room and suddenly realised that actually digital isn't just about technology it's about yeah, doing things really differently and making sure that we meet the needs of our customers. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

What do you think by signing the Local Digital Declaration, it’s allowed Dorset to do that it would have been able to do otherwise?

 

Lisa Trickey:

So I think in, in local government there are always lots of competing agendas, lots of competing priorities and unless you have legislation or some sort of government policy or guidance to hook your work on to it can be really hard to drive that work forward. Unless you've got a Chief Executive that really gets it you know and we're actually quite fortunate in Dorset that we do have a really fantastic Chief Executive when it comes to digital. But what the declaration does then is gives you a clear mandate to have those conversations, you can reference what is happening elsewhere and that's really helpful. And it's really clear it's really clear about what we should be doing and so you can start to think about the plans and priorities you know for your particular council as a result of that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I just wanted to ask about the common components because I know Dorset uses GOV.UK Pay for lots of your services including things like abandoned vehicle charges, highway licenses. And you also use GOV.UK Notify for other public sector services like blood online reporting tool and services to support young people. How in particular has Dorset used GOV.UK Notify?

 

Lisa Trickey: 

So we've used Notify to both integrated with our systems and just using the backend of Notify to to send information. And we've used Notify for text messaging information, emailing but also probably the biggest through posting letters. So our waste partnership for example, have used it to notify residents of changes to rounds or recycling schemes. We've

used it during COVID to respond to residents, keep residents informed and even a group of staff that don't have access to the IT network informed. It's so quick and easy to set up and in terms of trying to save money, using GOV Notify over the last year we've saved £55,000. Which I know is not massive in the scale of things but actually every penny counts at the moment for local government. So if you can quickly replace posting a letter with Notify or even better doing it by email or by text then that's that's really, really helpful.

 

We've also used it to think about how we improve our communication with customers and particularly around parents who have children with special educational needs and we had this concept of the educational health and care plan process takes 20 weeks so it's quite a long time. So how do we keep them better up-to-date? And that's changed the experience of that service completely for parents. It's improved the relationship between the service and parents so these components have a really you have a really big impact really positive impact for relatively, for relatively low time investment.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how has being part of the Local Digital Declaration community, how, how have you been able to connect with others? Have you spoken to other councils, perhaps in other areas of the country that you maybe might not connected with before? 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

Definitely. One of the best things for me that, that came out of the declaration is now we're able to connect with people through the Slack channel that has been put in place for this. And that's just brilliant - you can reach out to anybody and just ask ‘are you doing this?’, you know or ‘we're doing this’ and that's just been brilliant. 

 

In particular we've been working with Barnsley on a Local Digital Funded project around income. So it's enabled us to get involved in that. But you know before it was just really difficult. You didn't know, especially I think being down in the south west, you know it's not like when you're in the London boroughs and you've got those connections quite close by.

 

So to, to be able to be part of that network and to be able to reach out to people. And I have to say it's one of the the best communities in terms of people are always so helpful to share information, prior to COVID, meet you, show you what they've been doing, you know it's absolutely fantastic to have that, that network, and to be able to use that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mentioned COVID and I saw this month you tweeted: ‘the declaration and fund has been so positive for local government in raising the digital agenda locally, sharing and learning from each other across the country, it’s definitely positioned us better to respond to COVID-19’. Could you talk a bit more how the declaration has helped you?

 

Lisa Trickey: 

Definitely. I mean because we've been in a place where we've been doing our own sort of low code and development, we’ve stood up over 10 online services. They've taken over 20,000 sort of applications so, we were able to move at pace for those things which was, which was really helpful.

 

In terms of the department, MHCLG, having the Friday calls and you know quickly putting those in place so we were able to connect into those and hear what other people were doing. And you know learn from others continually so they were brilliant - you didn’t feel so alone in what you were doing. And we, you, what we often find in the world of digital we find that information then you can share across the rest of the organisation and push into different areas so that's really helpful. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Part of the declaration is committing to a project and Dorset's was about developing the digital skills with Dorset Council Partnership. I don't if you could tell me a bit more about that?

 

Lisa Trickey: 

Yeah, so we've done, so, so our declaration project was around digital skills and we've come at that from sort of multiple different angles and actually we've just been nominated in Digital Leaders for it so quite excited about that.  

 

So one of the strands is around developing champions within the community. So we have about 75 digital champions within the community, helping with that digital inclusion gap that we see. And when COVID hit that was, and that enabled us to be in a position where we could move that offer into a digital hotline and people were able to ring and get that support. So people who'd never even thought about going online pre-COVID suddenly were interested in order to keep in contact with their families. So we've had over 220 calls to that and I think that's just that will remain as a lasting legacy I think of COVID and will continue to grow.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Well congratulations. I wish you luck with all the nominations.

 

And so if there's somebody from a council or local government who's listening, and they maybe haven't signed it, is there anything you'd like to say to sort of, to them about why or how it's helped you or they're like address anything you think they might be concerned about? 

 

Lisa Trickey: 

I, I get quite a lot of contact about people, how you get started? And I think just being part of that bigger network, hearing what other people are doing, learning you know from people like Hackney are, are doing fantastic work - I might not have had sight of that before this. So you know, having that ability to learn from others. And you know I hope we get to a point with the Local Digital Fund alpha projects that, you know they will be able to be shared and you will be able to take those and you know implement them here in Dorset.

 

You know what the declaration has done is just, it's opened up those networks. You can see what other people are doing. When you're starting out on digital in a local authority, quite often you're the only one trying to champion the cause and having people that you can talk to and see, actually the end, you know the end, well not necessarily the end results, but there's, there's good progress being made and it’s worth, it's worth the effort - that's really helpful. It kind of keeps you going and until you can build that coalition inside your own organisation to help with that messaging, those networks are really valuable.

 

May-N Leow:

I think for me that, what, what Lisa says right at the end about that you're not alone. Certainly again, in a similar kind of feelings when you're, you’re in a council and you're thinking: ‘am I just a mad digital person in the entire council?’ So that definitely resonates with me when I was working in council, is like I said, being a part of that community, being able to say here's what good looks like and here's what we should be doing, is, is so powerful. So it's great to hear that you know, we're supporting Lisa in that kind of way and also giving her a place to call home - that she's, she's not the odd one out, there's lots of people in this space and, and everyone's willing to kind of share and help each other out - so that was really heartwarming for me.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah. I think it just really struck me that, that local authorities are on the frontline of public service provision, and really helping people to do the things that they need to do within their communities and delivering such a lot, really.

 

I thought the, the comments around leadership, we're really interesting and getting that buy-in. And the focus on user-centered design as well, is really interesting.

 

I think that's kind of opened up - when we, when we held the Local, the first Local #GovDesign Day as well, in partnership with Birmingham City Council as well, that's kind of something that's kind of opened up as a, as, as, as something that's kind of come out of us all working together I think, with MHCLG - and that was something the user-centered design community did and that was attended by around 200 people.

 

Laura Stevens:

Also part of the Digital Declaration is building digital capability, we’re now going to hear from Paul Fleming, who’s organisation has gone on GDS Academy training.

 

Paul Fleming:

So, so my name is Paul Fleming. I’m the Director of Digital and Business Change in Blackburn with Darwen Council, which is a unitary authority in the north west of England.

 

Laura Stevens:

And am I right in saying you've been at the council for about 2 years now? And it's been quite a busy time for the digital team over that period - there's a new digital directorate that’s been formed, and you’ve had a new website published.

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah it's been a bit of a rollercoaster couple of years. So I came over from the NHS, I'd, I’d worked sort of locally and nationally in the NHS. And decided to make the leap into local government and that was, that was - I think that’s 2 years this week. So it's been a really exciting couple of years.  It was a new directorate that was formed, quite a large team - just under 150 staff.  And it was really the dawn of a new era with, with digital and, and trying to take things further for our local population.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you signed the Local Digital Declaration in February 2019, how has it helped you?

 

Paul Fleming:

It’s helped us in many ways I think. 

 

So first of all, it was a real visible commitment for us, signing the declaration. It was something that was really exciting for me. I've always been around collaboration, around learning. And I think it, it provided this, this brilliant framework for us. But, but first and foremost, it was a visible commitment for us - we, we got our exec member - our, our elected member - you know stood up in front of the press with me, talking about, about that locally. It was a sign to, to the public - it was a real sign to our organisation of, of a path of travel for us.

 

And it really it gave us a framework from, from there on in that I've been able to, to work with my teams and wider teams on to, to... I suppose beyond that create, create a bit of a culture with the organisation. I think you know, a lot of that would have been achievable without, without a sort of national and local collaboration like, like the declaration, but it, it definitely helped me. It definitely legitimised a lot of the thinking that we were doing. 

 

And I suppose since then what, what it's opened up - you know some of the learning and some of the collaboration has definitely been able to take us, enabled us to go further than what we could have done I think, without it.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mentioned there about the collaboration and learning. Could you give me some examples of that? 

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah, I think one of the major things the declaration has brought is the blogs, to me. I find this really interesting that there’s this open way of working. As a council, we launched our blog - I had my eye on many of the blogs, like learning from others, and, and I just found, found them so open and, and, and so much learning in there, that was a really refreshing change for me. 

 

I think you know wider than that, collaborating on bids has been interesting. We've not, I don't think we've, we've been successful with a bid yet through, through the sort of collaborative funding over the last whatever, 18 months it's been. But what we have got from working on those bids is collaborating with others. So I know we were working with Lincolnshire Council around waste and we've talked to a number of others, Leeds Council amongst other local authorities. 

 

I think important for me - I came from a different sector, a different part the public sector in the NHS, and it's helped me speed up those connections with, with people you know, through social media off the back of the blogs, off the back of the collaborations and, and I just think that would have took me a longer time, it would have took me more, more than this couple of years to really build some decent conversations up with people.

 

Laura Stevens:

You’ve preempted my, my next question which was, if you, ‘cause you're talking there about how the Local Digital Declaration like really massively sped up things for you. I was gonna ask if you hadn't signed it, what do you think would have been different?

 

Paul Fleming:

I think the pace of change might, might have been different, I think it would have been slower. And maybe you know, if I hadn't have signed it, I'd have been looking from the outside in. So I would have been picking up all of this but without being a signatory, and we wouldn't have then made that commitment to the wider cause and that's important.

 

And since signing the declaration and picking up all those different connections, I just have a much better network. And it's really important that I commit to that network and, and you know our counsellors are full signatory to that, so that I, I share that learning so other people don't go through maybe the pain I went through before in, in trying work some of these things out. So, so really really progress and transformation can work faster by this sort of you know, super learning network that, that is built up.

 

And you know when I looked into everything, there was some really good networks going on. And, and this is kind of, this brings together a bit of, a bit of a family of, of those networks. So it just opened, opened up my eyes to the sector, opened up a lot of connections, and yeah, definitely, definitely speeded up both pace for me, and hopefully pace for others learning from us now.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah for sure. I think the community aspect of it is something, that when I've been researching, has come up a lot. So what shared challenges do councils have?

 

Paul Fleming:

We're all trying to do the same things - we've got the same challenges, the same requirements for people. And it's up to us then to land those solutions, working with people locally, co-designing what we're doing to get that right for people. And the more we share those designs and those approaches, I think the faster we can get to the right conversation with, with people and residents locally. 

 

We've shared challenges around, certainly COVID-19 and the pandemic and the challenges that’s thrown up. Massive amount of collaboration and good open working on that, that’s helped us. I think the website, when we released the website last year, we went open source and was doing a lot of learning from others on that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And talking about the coronavirus response, and that is a challenge faced by everybody, I was reading a blog post you’d written where you said: ‘last summer we had undergone Government Digital Service training in Agile ways of working including rapid development of solutions, multidisciplinary development and user research - and we’re using this learning in dealing with the pandemic’. 

 

And this learning was provided through the digital declaration, wasn’t it? 

 

Paul Fleming:

It was yeah. I mean this has been, this has been, I don't know if it's luck - it's definitely part design, part luck at around timing. But we, we went through the GDS Agile teams training last summer, summer 2019. That, that was perfect timing going into such a huge crisis because everything we've learned and, and, and expanded on since then, has, has been used. And I don't think we would have handle this pandemic as well without that training. 

 

We, we really went on a journey after doing the agile teams training. A lot of the team started to get really interested in the agenda obviously, and get interested in, in the individual lines of learning you know, customer research or, or service design or, or other sections. So that started to break out, we developed our own internal learning track off the back of that, and we've expanded that across the council. And so we started with my directorate and probably, probably trained 100 people in the directorate on, on the GDS team’s approach, Agile teams approach. 

 

But then we started to break that out into different departments. So we had people from social care, we had people from environmental health, we had people from environment and waste - all doing the same sort of training that we had through, through GDS. So it, I can't, I can't stress how valuable that, that has been going through that. And the fact that it was you know, it was complimentary, it was free training for us at that time through signing the declaration, was just, was just great and massive for us. I don't know if we could have invested as much as we did. So, so we created this movement off the back of that. And you know, it's part declaration, but the big part of signing up was, was, was the input we got from the training. 

 

And the movement kind of started, the first thing we did, the first agile project we did was to redesign the space that the digital team worked in. And this engaged the whole team, they ran it on sprints, they ran it with kanbans in this one corner of the office that, that they had, you know. So the office then you know, a couple of months later looked completely different. I think that then grew, other people saw that, HR then saw that and they started looking at the, the department and changing their layouts, and this was all based on the learning that we picked up in those courses from, from GDS through the declaration. 

 

So yeah I can't stress how important it's been. It’s, it's kind of really changed the game culturally for us, and importantly it's give us those strong methods, that methodology, because you do need that, you do need that real learning and those real strong methods and approaches to create something good.

 

Laura Stevens:

So it seems like there's been a big ripple effect from it?

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah, and you know that's exactly what we want. We want, we want a movement, we want a movement around digital and, and design and Agile and the best things for our residents, and, and you know these approaches help us, help us to achieve that.

 

So, so it, it has created a ripple effect, and it's really heartening to see people taking on board the, the thinking. I see things now just happening in the organisation that you know, I suppose many, many years ago you, you would have controlled that from an IT section and it would have gone a lot slower, and people would have been you know against IT sometimes, the technology teams for slowing things down. We, we've now created a movement where things, things are happening. 

 

Laura Stevens:

It's clear this has had a big effect in your organisation. And I guess is there one thing you'd say to somebody who was looking to sign up to the Local Digital Declaration?

 

Paul Fleming:

So I-I think it's multifaceted, I don't think I could say one thing why you should. You know if I was to say one thing, it would be you know come and join, join this collaboration. but really it's multifaceted in, in the fact that, you need to commit - you need to make a visible commitment. And I think you know, as, as a local authority, you’re getting the buy-in from the politicians, ‘cause really you can't sign that declaration without getting executive membership buy-in to that. And by getting that, you're raising the profile of digital. So, so I think commitment, visible commitment and political commitment is important.

 

And then the other things are, and I think 2 more things - one is the framework and the skills you get out of it. And then the third, third part would be around the learning and the collaboration. And I've not even talked, I suppose when I first looked at it you know, I saw there was opportunities around funding. And, and when I was talking to politicians, I said you know if, if we sign this declaration, there is training, there is funding available, it opens up more doors. But the funding has, has not been; I mean we, we’ve not been successful in the funding rounds, but, but that hasn't mattered. We've actually got more out of those other aspects than you know, I can't put a price on some of that stuff because it's going to be taking hundreds of thousands of pounds off our cost lines by working in this way. 

 

So yeah I suppose my, my eyes have been opened the more I've been part of, of what, what the declaration has opened up really is a whole new world for us.

 

Laura Stevens:

So, what about next things you’d like to see the declaration offering?

 

Paul Fleming:

Yeah, I think something I-I kind of called out very early on around, because I come from the NHS and they had like an academy for basically the CIOs [Chief Information Officers] that would go through you know a training, and that was basically like looking at the leadership issues we’ve gotten digital in the NHS. So I came out of that world and when I came into the council, I was looking for the equivalent. And I know the GDS Academy does certain things. I think the, the Digital Declaration could probably go a step further and look at like how we develop that leadership a little bit more in depth. I think that would be an area I’d be really interested in. 

 

But what I did think was can we post more people out, can we either have short secondments, can we expose people. I would love to expose some of my people to GDS teams, and you know some of these central team were, I think you know sometimes you're at the really sharp end. So I think more, taking that collaboration a step further and actually exposing people - so whether that's across different local authorities, whether that's working between central and local. I think that's, that's an area I'd love to see developed up. You know I'd love to personally sit in another team for a few days and see how things work and invite others to come in and do the same in our team, and, and you know ditto for all, all of my staff who have got the interest on, on that side.

 

May-N Leow:

Just fantastic to hear from, from Paul and the feedback that he's had in his council. It kind of mirrors the experience I had in Southwark as well as that. You know when you're initially trying to sell why you should sign the Declaration, you obviously use the funding and the free training as that kind of carrot to get your senior management and politicians interested, but then seeing the wider benefits of like the, the results of the training as well as that kind of organisational transformation and that ingraining of digital and user-centeredness approach is, is always fantastic to, to hear. And Paul's like a great example to showcase what, what is possible when you've got that someone who believes that and drives it and use the declaration, as well as all the benefits, to kind of spearhead the movement in his council. So I think that, that again, stuck with me. 

 

And other, in terms of training, obviously it’s partner-partnership with GDS Academy. We've put through 1,183 Council Officers and leaders to date, on free training. And yeah, we've just had amazing feedback in response on, on that - especially the Agile for Teams, that kind Paul references. And because we go to the councils when we run that training - I think that's the great thing about that particular course, where it's in the council, it's with other people in your council rather than you in isolation doing that training. 

 

So because of COVID-19, a lot of our training is on pause at the moment. But we are going to be looking with GDS Academy to start the training back up again. Obviously following government regulations.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Yeah,I mean wow, what, what, what a great story of, of change and, and overcoming challenges.

 

I really like how Paul is involving everyone on, on this journey and including people, and thinking about the enablers to change, even down to redesigning the space in which people work. So yeah, there was, as May-N said, there's MHCLG and GDS Academy run, run training to build this capability. And courses, some of them were delivered at the time at the GDS Academy venues, and then the Agile for Teams was delivered at the local authorities’s own location, and it kind of enables the teams to get this really hands-on experience about how to apply Agile methodologies within their own environment, within their own context. And I thought it was great how Paul's kind of really embedded the learning that he took from the, from the training and he's embedded it and really been able to, to use it. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Paul spoke about how the training has helped his organisation during coronavirus. And how else has the declaration helping during this pandemic?

 

May-N Leow:

Yeah. So initially at the beginning of COVID, we had weekly calls specifically around the crisis response that local authorities are facing obviously, on the sharp end of the stick on supporting the communities. 

 

And then now we're kind of moving to bi-weekly calls on that kind of phase recovery, as again councils start to kind of think of reopening services like libraries, community centres. But as well as that, that blend of face-to-face interaction versus remote interaction. 

 

And there's a real willingness and thing of momentum now from not, to not go back to the way it was. So councils have seen that you know we can do things fast, we can share data, we can do things securely, but do it in a way that actually meets resident needs. So I think there's a real ambition and a real, the right time really to kind of look at all organisational transformation and seeing how digital can actually make service delivery even better and get in, engage more, more residents. 

 

And so we’re, we're also looking at launching a special COVID round, which hopefully will be live once this podcast goes out, so that's in recognition of all that you know, the moving from crisis response now to phase recovery. So again, councils are coming up with similar challenges that we would like to help support councils with.

 

Laura Stevens:

And sort of on that, if somebody is listening from local government, how do they get in touch, how do they stay connected, how do they sign up to the declaration?

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Now I just say, the Slack channels are absolutely fantastic, and the Local Digital Community’s brilliant. And you've got GDS folks on there from all different teams wanting to support you, and answer any questions about any of the kind of support wrap that we had around the Local Digital Declaration, whether that's common platforms, GDS Academy training, we kind of raised a bit of awareness around the Digital Marketplace or the Crown Commercial Service and you know, the Service Standards. 

 

May-N Leow:

Sure, so our website, localdigital.gov.uk, has all the information on how to sign up as a signatory. You can also follow us on Twitter at LDgovUK, and we're all there. And yeah by all means, DM directly to us or to the channel, and we'd love to hear from you.

 

And because we're obviously coming up to our 2 year anniversary in July, not only the podcast, which again thank you for the opportunity to speak about the declaration, we're going to be launching a, a, a whole campaign in celebration, which is going to last a month. So there's going to be lots of activities that will amplify all the amazing work that the local councils are doing at the moment, but also kind of get people to think about how, what does it means to kind of recommit to the declaration, to like properly bring in more of the principles of the declaration, and what, what’s that kind of journey that councils, not just Lisa and Paul, but other people have had. 

 

So we'll be showcasing a lot of those great stories more as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you both so much for coming on the podcast today, it's been great having you. And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms, and the transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

May-N Leow:

Thanks Lisa and Laura. It’s been good fun.

 

Lisa Jeffery:

Thanks very much. It’s been brilliant. Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast #19: A spotlight on GOV.UK Notify

Government Digital Service Podcast #19: A spotlight on GOV.UK Notify

May 27, 2020

Laura Stevens: 

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer at GDS. And like last month’s episode, this one will also be recorded via Hangouts as we’re all remote working now. 

 

So today we’re going to be talking about GOV.UK Notify. This is the government’s messaging tool which allows teams across the public sector to send out text messages, letters and emails to their users - cheaply and easily.

 

It sent its first notification in May 2016, and this month GOV.UK Notify reached a milestone and has sent out one billion messages. 

 

Notify gets critical information to people that need it. It’s used by local councils, health organisations, central government departments, fire services and many other public sector bodies. And it’s used for a diverse range of services including flood alerts, blue badge notifications, doctor appointment reminders and informing prison wardens of their rotas, to name a few. 

 

So to tell me more is Pete Herlihy, so please could you introduce yourself, what you do here at GDS and your role on Notify. 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yes, I can Laura. So yeah, I’m Pete, I work on the Notify Team, I help them out. I’m a Product Manager. I’ve been at GDS since the beginning, I haven’t, I haven’t made parole just yet.

 

I’ve worked a lot on a number of platforms in GDS, so publishing platform, GOV.UK, register to vote, petitions and more recently, when I say more recently, my, my latest gig is on Notify, which we’ve been doing now for just over 4 years. And we started with literally 2 people and we’re now 11, and yeah my role on that is just to help and support that team to deliver what is GOV.UK Notify.

 

Laura Stevens

And why was Notify set up 4 years ago?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Well there’s a story there. So Notify was one of the solutions that came out of something called the ‘Enabling Strategy’, which was a piece of work GDS did. The, the reality behind that piece of work was we needed to figure out as an organisation what we could do to help the rest of government do what they do.

 

And so there was a bunch of stuff going on, we looked at various different kind of common problems across government that we wanted to solve, and, and that was kind of where the whole Government as a Platform programme emerged during that time. And one of the problems we wanted to solve was keeping people informed.

And we, we learned very quickly that we probably didn’t need a status tracking application, but what we needed was a notifications platform. And the reckon was, which we did soon validate very quickly, was that if we could kind of just tell people what we knew as soon as we knew it, we didn’t have to wait for them to get anxious enough to jump on a website and look and you know, sign in and see where the thing was at. So it might have saved, or it would have solved our problems with regards to you know the cost of running contact centres and all that avoidable contact, but it wouldn’t really have helped our citizens or end users as much. And so we, we fairly early on validated that and pivoted from a status tracking application to a notifications application. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And can you talk about some of the service teams that use it, like who uses it and what do they use it for?  

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Well we have now, what’s the number, around 2 and a half thousand service teams now using it, which is a lot. I think - when we started, someone, there was an external consultancy that did a little bit of work for us and they thought there might be 80 services that would use it. And, we were like OK cool, that’s a good number to aim at. But, it’s a completely different profile actually from what we’ve envisaged. 

 

We thought at the start they’ll be a bunch of really big services using it and that will be like where the bulk comes from and then we kind of quickly learned that there was a really really long tail of smaller service teams that, and many we didn’t recognise as being a service, necessarily when we started who are really going to get the most benefit out of it. So the big teams might save money, and they’ll get a better product but they probably would have done something anyway. Whereas the rest of them just maybe wouldn’t enter the space of digital comms in this way - so they benefit massively from Notify. 

 

So the types of teams, you list, you ran through a bunch at the start there. So, we do have nearly as many service teams in local government using it, as we do in central government. And an increasing number in the NHS as well. Obviously events of this year have seen massive surges in uptake from all of those sectors. 

 

For example of things we’re doing a bunch of messaging for the COVID services, all the support and advice the NHS is providing to the extremely vulnerable, that’s all going through Notify. All your test results are going through Notify as well. We’ve got a huge amount of business continuity messaging, so accounts all telling the staff where and when they need to go to do work or changes-changes to opening hours or that sort of thing. 


We do passport applications, progress updates, flood alerts, global travel alerts, I mean there are, every service is slightly different and that’s kind of the point. So yeah 2 and half thousand of them, 650 organisations I think across the public sector and there’s still a lot more out there who hopefully one day will be using Notify.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And also was reading on GOV.UK, there was a press release put out which said that Notify is on track to save taxpayers an average of £35 million a year over the next 5 years. When you, it started, did you think you’d be making those sort of savings, yeah, to the taxpayer? 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

We were hopeful. We knew that the return on investment for something like Notify was massive because you know, a text message that cost you 1 and a half pence versus a phone call that costs you £5. That doesn’t take many many phone calls to be avoided to make a good case. 

 

And, I remember doing a presentation at GDS Sprint 16, Sprint 16, the orange one. It was very orange. And one of the slides on that was 1 in 4 calls to government is someone just asking for an update. It costs a lot of money to run a contact centre and the government deals with literally tens of millions of phone calls a year. So if we can knock out a quarter of those by investing in a small team doing notifications, then there’s going to be some massive savings. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I thought as well as hearing from you about, from the sort of product point of view, we also wanted to hear from one of the users. So we interviewed Silvia Grant who’s the Lead User Researcher at the Environment Agency, who works on the flood warning service which uses Notify. 

 

Silvia Grant: 

So my name is Silvia Grant, I’m a Senior User Researcher for DEFRA [Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs]. And I work on an Environment Agency project called ‘The Flood Warning System’. We’re replacing that currently and the new project name is called ‘The Next Warning System’, so we’ve deliberately dropped the flood from that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And what, can you explain a bit more about that service? What does it do? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yes, so the Environment Agency has been sending out flood warnings since 1996. It’s a category 1 responder and has the responsibility for issuing these messages to the citizens and people who are at risk of flooding. So what the system does is we send out these texts, these emails, we have this information on GOV.UK, and it’s all about warning people that flooding in the area is likely or is happening.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how does that system use GOV.UK Notify? 

 

Silvia Grant:

So at the moment we have over 500,000 user accounts registered to our service, and we use Notify to send letters and texts. And we send them letters to tell them when they’ve first registered that we update their account details, changes to the service, that sort of thing. And obviously also for our texts.  

 

Laura Stevens:

And how does that translate into the amount of notifications being sent to the people? And obviously this must change year on year depending on the flooding and depending on the weather and everything.

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah. Well so since we’ve moved across to Notify in December 2018, we’ve sent over 4 and a half million texts and close to 10,000 letters. So those are big numbers for us. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

How does having Notify help you get the information to the people that need to hear it? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Well first of all it’s it’s quicker - so it’s simpler and quicker and cheaper for us to use Notify. So we can send, in in terms of letters for instance, we can send them daily rather than weekly. We have much more freedom around content changes, we can test those changes. So it’s it’s saving us a lot of that admin time, and cost as well. 

 

And because it’s a very stressful scenario for our users, it’s quite again, high emotion, high stress, high impact scenario that we send these letters and these texts in, it, it’s, it’s very important for us to get it right and to, you know for the process to be as slick as possible. And I think Notify really helps us do that.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So this is a really important service because there are, there’s 2.6 million properties at risk of flooding. So what sort of information is being sent out through Notify? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah, that’s right. So in England the estimate is between 1 in 5, 1 in 6 homes in England are at risk of flooding. And obviously that figure is growing because of climate change and a number of other factors. 

 

So it’s, in some cases when we issue severe flood warnings, those are warnings where there is danger to life. So those can be very serious. But overall the flood warning service aims to save lives and livelihoods. So yes overall quite a high impact service. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how much would this, do you have an estimate on how much it’s saving money-wise for the Environment Agency? 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah so just got the figure off the team and it’s saved, in the last 2 years that we’ve been using it, approximately saved the taxpayer at least £150,000. So that’s letters, texts, running costs, everything.

 

Laura Stevens:

But as you’re saying you’re working on like a high impact service that has to get out messages quickly and which has a, yeah an impact, a big impact on people’s lives. Does having something like Notify in place sort of allow you to then have the space to do other things? Because you know that that’s there, that’s just gonna work, and you can then focus on other thi-parts of this quite emotional and high impact service. 

 

Silvia Grant:

Yeah definitely. So it’s, it’s quite a long, for our users it’s quite a stressful time receiving those alerts or those warnings, and when they pick those up we, we need to make sure that they arrive instantly, that they say the right things and using a central government platform makes sure that we have that extra accountability that we really need for sending these out. 

 

And yes as well that that has given us a lot more space for actually focussing on things like the content of the message.

 

So it’s been overall a positive under all spheres. So it’s easy to use, it’s intuitive, it’s reliable, it’s transparent. So if ever there is an issue with it, we are notified instantly. And again the Notify Team has been really responsive with feedback, so whenever we have had requests or issues, there’s been a fantastic service on their part.

 

Laura Stevens:

How do you plan to use Notify in the future, in your product?

 

Silvia Grant:

  1. So as our system gets replaced, the Flood Warning System into what we call the ‘Next Warning System’, we anticipate to use Notify even more. So we’re planning to send confirmation codes to users who sign up to the service on their mobiles. So that is, is a step forward in terms of security for us and it’s again, a cheaper journey and for the user, it’s it’s a 2-step journey rather than a 4- or 5-step. We’ve been testing that with the user and it’s, it’s a very positive response. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, is that, is that how you imagined Notify would be being used? 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

I don’t think we clocked Notify being used to protect life necessarily when we started out. 

 

But we did get, or start working with the Environment Agency fairly early on, so, so, which was great, because what that meant was we had this use case that we could point out internally to say that look this is really crucial. This, this isn’t just about getting a passport update quicker or these kinds of things. This, this is literally a life-saving message and that, that allowed us to focus the right kind of energies on our resilience and make sure we got what we needed. Because we can’t not be there right like if we’re sending these-this kind of message. We have been working with them for a while, they’re a great team, they blog a lot about what they’re doing which is fantastic and very cool.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Was there anything else in the clip that particularly stood out to you?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yeah I think there’s 2 things. So one is letters. Because I think people think of text messages and emails and forget letters is a thing for Notify. Don’t forget but it’s less well understood. And when we started, back in 2016, when we started out, we were letters is probably a thing just because we need to offer a full palette of comms option and for some people they need a letter, or they prefer a letter, or digitally excluded, whatever it might be, they have legitimate reasons, some of them are legally required for example. 

 

And we only, and we kind of stumbled over letters, well not stumbled over, we confirmed our letters when we were doing our, these tours of the application processing. Tours sounds really grand doesn’t it? But we’d sit with a team and one of the things they would do is they would finish preparing an application receipt or confirmation of decision or whatever it was going to be. And then they’d press print and they’d select the printer and they’d walk over, join a queue and someone would yell out ‘stop printing I need to put in the letterhead paper’ you know and they’d, and we were like oh this must be very expensive, and then goes from a printer, they’re folding it up into an envelope, the envelope goes into a tray, someone comes round in the afternoon with a trolley and picks them all up and we thought ‘woah there’s got to be a better way of doing letters’.

 

And that was real early confirmation that if we could make it easy for teams to do letters we could save, help them save, huge amounts of money and time. The amount of time people were just standing around waiting for the printers and things like this, so if that could just be a click it’s like great. And they could do lots more good things with their time. 

 

So that was one thing that was really interesting. 

 

The second is around the real time content changes. So one of the problems I guess we were trying to solve was often these things are like hard-coded and you need a developer and you need to pay a change request fee to your external supplier to update a typo even in a letter or change a URL in an email or something like that. 

 

And we really wanted, not only make it easier to do that in real time but also to allow the interface to be used by like a content designer or a comms person, so they could be involved in shaping the messages themselves in real time. Not just preparing it in a word doc that goes round for sign off by committee, and then is handed over to a development team to implement. 

 

So we, we really tried to bring those roles into the team. And you know we were hearing horror stories of people paying tens of thousands just to change a few letters, or including extra things because they couldn’t change a letter saying so please ignore this section, these kind of horror stories you hear about. So that was one of the important bits for us to get real time content changes in an accessible way into Notify and I’m glad to hear they’re using it well as well. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

We also have a clip from the Canadian Digital Service which is Canada’s version of GDS. Notify is obviously used across the UK in the public sector but how has Notify also been used around the world?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

So we’ve worked with a number of teams actually around the world - some we’ve shared patterns with, others we’ve shared our open source code with. And we, as of today I think there are 2 Notify’s being used in anger, one in Australia through the DTA, the Digital Transformation Agency, it’s basically the, the Aussie version of GDS. They were the first, they forked the Notify code maybe about a year and a half, 2 years ago now. And they’re now running that for the Australian government. They’ve you know, taken the code, they then iterate on top of it to add things that are unique and special to them.  

 

The Canadian Digital Service are also running a version of Notify. And that’s growing quickly, it’s grown quicker than we did when we started, so yay for them. But those are the 2 that are being used at government level.

 

Have to say there’s a lot of people who just pick stuff up from blogs or from Twitter or whatever, rather than any kind of formal introductions to the product. Yeah so it’s a great product, very proud that others have picked up the codebase and are running with it, we continue to work with those teams. Speak to teams like Code for America who are doing great stuff in the States. We’ve had a few all team web catch ups with the Canadian Team, and the Americans to show and tell really about what they’re doing, enhancements they’ve made, things they’d like to contribute back. So we’ve got a good little community going on, which is fantastic. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, a very nice international community. And we’re going to hear from Bryan Willey, who’s a Product Manager of Notify at the Canadian Digital Service.

 

Bryan Willey:

So my name is Bryan Willey, I’m a Product Manager here at CDS, the Canadian Digital Service. And I am the Product Manager for Notify, a piece of software, an open source software, we took from GOV.UK. 

 

Sorry is that my cat or your cat? 

 

Laura Stevens:

I don’t have a cat, so it’s not my cat.

 

Bryan Willey: 

She’s miaowing outside the door. Sorry about that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And yeah would it be fair to say for UK listeners, the Canadian Digital Service is Canada’s version or the equivalent of GDS over there?

 

Bryan Willey:

Yes absolutely. I mean it basically has similar initials. Yeah, so the Canadian Digital Service was made with both GDS and the American 18F Group in mind. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And could you describe what the product you manage is, Notify?

 

Bryan Willey:

So Notify is a email platform. Well we’re using predominantly as an email platform, it also does SMS. I know that yours does letters but we’re not there yet. We’re predominantly using it for email and it helps the Canadian government sort of send email messages from a centralised location to the public. Something that the Canadian government’s only been able to do with Outlook servers and traditional email servers before.

 

Notify allows us to have this cloud-at-cost system that can deploy emails very quickly to anyone who wants to use the service, whether that’s an API integration to connect up to automatically reply when somebody submits an application, or if it’s a newsletter that goes out that people sign up for. And it’s been very helpful in sort of building any of those systems because in the past, we’ve had to go procure an individual cloud email vendor for each solution we built.

 

Notify allows us to centralise all that, procure, secure and say yeah, this one thing is now what we use for email. And so we don’t have to go through the process of procuring it every time, and that’s been exceedingly helpful.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how’s it going? Because I see, I looked on your dashboard and now 22 services are using Notify and more than 740,000 notifications have been sent.

 

Bryan Willey:

Yeah. Well we think it’s going pretty well. The growth has been faster than we had expected. The current crisis has something to do with that. It’s definitely upped our volume more than it would have been.

 

Out of the 22 live services, it’s a mix of how much they’re getting used; some are small, more prototype-y services that do things like password reset emails. Whereas some of our more recent ones include a subscription newsletter for Health Canada to combat COVID-19 misinformation. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So I saw your blog post on the CDS blog from November 2019, and in it you said ‘this, meaning your Notify tool, isn’t something we built entirely from scratch. Using open source code from the hugely successful GOV.UK Notify service, created by the GDS in the UK, our team is adapting it to fit within our context, in English and French - both of Canada’s official languages’. 

 

So I wanted to talk about like, what were the user needs for Canada and how was that similar to the user need over here, and yeah how were you able to adapt, what had been done over here?

 

Bryan Willey:

Yeah. So much in the same way I imagine GDS discovered this problem, we had a lot of government services that were communicating with people by mail and phone and the people would rather just get an email, you know. Then they don’t have to sit around and wait for a phone call. And when we were building services early in CDS, we discovered this and we’d be setting up email for each of these services. So after doing this 2, 3 times, CDS said ‘we should really just make this so we can have it every time’. 

 

Because we’re not, also not the only ones looking for this. The government of Canada is moving towards more cloud-first strategy and as such they’ve identified the needs for email notifications in a bunch of services. So we forked not just GOV.UK Notify, the DTA [Digital Transformation Agency] in Australia also had a copy of Notify that they had modified a bit from yours. And we looked at both of those and evaluated them, and we forked GDS Notify because we wanted to be able to get your upstream security changes and stuff and pull them down into our repo [repository]. And the Australian one was merged into a big mono-repo which gave us less flexibility with the code.

 

So forking the GDS one was a great idea to sort of prototype it and see what we had to work with because this was already a solution to the problem we’d found. And we then had to, we liked it so we modified it to Canada. Some of the first things we did was of course update SMS to Canadian phone numbers, add timezone support in, so that the logs and stuff functions across more than one timezone. We had to pull apart the whole UI [user interface] and translate it into French because Canada has 2 official languages. And so it’s been a bit of an overhaul for that, and that’s been a lot of our major work.

 

And we also had to sort of modify the branding system bit. Because again, 2 official languages means 2 official government brands, one in English and one in en français. So we’ve had to sort of modify the templating system. We’re working on that a bit more now to expand it for both official language use cases.

 

And so it’s, it’s just been a lot of tweaks here and there to the system and and re-you know changing the UI to look more like Canada.ca than GOV.UK.

 

Laura Stevens:

And by having this already in place, what has it allowed you to do? Has it allowed you to move quicker, has it saved you hassle? How has it affected your work and your plan with the product?

 

Bryan Willey:

It definitely saved us hassle because we’d have to set that all up from scratch on our own. The email problem, the notification problem, wasn’t going to go away. And these Canadian departments were going to solve it and were solving it by their own means - they were building up their own Outlooks servers and using email stuff. You know that wasn’t taking advantage of cloud-at-cost like Notify did. 

 

So having the software that you’d spent 3 years building and already putting a lot of the settings and permissions and access and security and tech in place, really saved us the time having to go through that on our own.

 

Laura Stevens:

And also I wanted to ask, so when I’ll be playing this, this edited clip back, I’ll be with Pete. And I wondered if you had anything you wanted to say to him, any questions or any requests as the Lead Product Manager for Notify?

 

Bryan Willey:

Thanks for all your help, I guess. You know. I..it’s working great for us so I don’t know if there’s anything we need or any help specifically from Pete. The software is pretty complete in its solution for email and SMS, and so thanks for all your hard work Pete. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So was there anything in there that you were surprised by or that you hadn’t realised?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

So I’d knew, I’d seen actually most of that we’ve shared with the team so. The one that I didn’t clock was the branding, and the dual language branding - I hadn’t even thought about that one. So we, we may, we may steal that back. Obviously there’s more than one official language in the UK as well so. 

 

That’s really great to hear that.

 

There was an interesting point though around the use of Notify, either by an API or not, so again that was one of our really early reckons when we started Notify, was that not everyone’s got a development team or development capacity or is high enough a priority in their organisation to get the focus. And so we couldn’t just make something that only worked, worked for API and so everything you can do in Notify, you can do via the web interface as well. 

 

And the other bit I guess that is maybe even overlooked a bit, is that you get like 3 years worth of software development or whatever, but you also get 3 years worth of research. And we’ve, we’ve done a lot. You know we’ve always had a dedicated user researcher in the team, we’ve always done a huge amount of user research, which you have to d-, for something you’re aspiring to make completely self-service, you have to do the user research, otherwise it’s just never going to be. 

 

And so we’ve done loads with like developers, with finance people, with product teams - all the different types of people we see wanting to use Notify. I think what you get when you fork code or, or you know even just take the patterns that another team has, has, derived is you just save yourself years of user research. And again, at that point you can then focus on what are the, the like the niche research requirements around working en francais as he says or whatever else it might be. So that, along with kind of the blogging that goes along the way that shows some of the thinking that goes into the product and some of the decisions that are taken, I mean all of it just shows how, how sensible it is to be doing this stuff in the open. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, for sure. And I think that, talking about doing stuff in the open and blogging, leads me on quite nicely to my next part, because I wanted to talk about Notify’s most recent work on coronavirus, which you referenced at the top of the podcast. And 2 of our colleagues, Miriam Raynes and Mark Buckley wrote a blog post about how Government as a Platform, or GaaP services, as a whole are helping with the COVID-19 response. 

 

But to talk specifically about Notify, they, in the blog post it’s talking about this huge increase in numbers, like 2 million SMS messages were sent using Notify on a single day in March compared to the daily average of 150,000. I’ve also got a figure here of daily messages up as much as 600%, as high as 8.6 million a day. 

 

So what services are using Notify to help with the government’s coronavirus response?

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yeah, there, so the, the increase in communication is obviously massive and needs to be. And one of the biggest users of Notify is the GOV.UK email service, and they, they do all of the email for people who subscribe to any content that the government publishes - so travel alerts for example, if you want to know can I take a flight to Namibia, here’s the guidance, or if there’s hurricanes coming through the Caribbean and these countries are affected, then I need to like push out information to say don’t go to these places, or whatever it might be. And those alerts are, you know, again potentially protecting people, life and property - they’re like really important. And there’s been a huge amount of travel advice and alerts being given, as, as you can imagine. So that’s been one of the biggest users. 

 

We’ve also seen, I mentioned earlier, like a huge amount of business continuity stuff. And we put a blog post out recently as well, just reminding I guess more than anything, that all of the public sector could use Notify to provide emergency staff updates for changes to working patterns et cetera. as a result of COVID-19. So there’s definitely been a big uptick there.

 

And then I think, from, from the health perspective there’s, I’ll just say NHS because there’s like various bits of the NHS that are working like ridiculously hard and fast to spin out new services really quickly, and these services are like just incredibly crucial right now.

 

So the extremely vulnerable service, this is one where the government said if you are you know, in this extreme risk category you should stay at home for 12 weeks, and they’ve been texting this group of people.

 

There’s all the stuff around testing and results for testing, ordering home test kits, all these sorts of things. So there’s the very specific COVID response type stuff and that is, there is a significant volume of that that’s still ongoing. 

 

There is business as usual to some degree actually still going on. So people are you know, people are still having to renew passports or whatever it might be. Whilst the volumes are down, they’re still happening. So we don’t stop all the other messaging and just focus on this, we’ve, we’ve got all that to do as well, and this is, this is all additional, it’s all on top. 

 

It all came very quickly as well. You know this wasn’t a gradual ramp up over weeks and weeks to 5,6,700%, it was, it was almost overnight. And yeah, it’s been a huge task to, to keep the platform stable. We had one outage as a result of this on St Patrick’s Day. Which obviously we were massively disappointed at, like our resilience is like one of our, you know, one of the things we pride ourselves most on but we just couldn’t prepare for that kind of instantaneous ramp up. So we, we fixed that very quickly and you know Notify itself has been very stable since.

 

But we’re still continuing on the basis of what we’re seeing now, we’re going to call that the new normal and then we need to add again capacity, 2 or 3 times that again. So there’s still a lot of work to be done, the team still working incredibly hard as they have been ever since, well always, but particularly since, since lock-in began. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I believe I’m right in saying as well the 1 billionth message was also a coronavirus one - that was for a notification sent by the coronavirus home testing service.

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Yes, it was, that was quite opportune. It’s a good example of the type, the primary type of messaging that’s going on with Notify at the moment. 

 

And you know those levels are still high, I think we had like 7 and a half million again on Friday, so we’re not getting any quieter. We’re, and we have to plan that we’re not going to. And if we do get quieter then ok, that’s fine but we, we can’t sort of take our foot off at the moment.

 

Laura Stevens: 

As you mentioned one of the organisations using Notify a lot at the moment is the NHS and the various teams within the NHS. And we’ve got a clip from Darren Curry, who’s the Chief Digital Officer at the NHS Business Services Authority, about how and why his team are using Notify. 

 

Darren Curry:

Hello I’m Darren Curry, the Chief Digital Officer for the NHS Business Services Authority [NHSBSA], which is an organisation which processes a lot of nationwide transactions on behalf of the NHS, so both public-facing and towards other clinical-facing services. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you’re quite a long standing member of NHSBSA, aren’t you?

 

Darren Curry:

Yes, I am. So I’ve been at NHS Business Services Authority for roughly 17 years, 17, 18 years now. Believe it or not, I joined originally as a Data Entry Officer back in the day, whilst I was doing my university degree, for pocket money effectively, or beer money. And it paid for me through, through university and I have enjoyed it so much and progressed in the organisation to now be Chief Digital Officer so it’s, it’s been a good place to work. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I know that the NHS Business Services Authority has been doing lots of things in response to coronavirus but what I’d like to talk to you about today is what you’ve used GOV.UK Notify for.  

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah. So we use GOV.UK Notify on a number of our live services as we stand now. So we, we issue exemption certificates, so prepayment certificates for prescription forms, maternity exemptions, which we now issue digitally - so, so we already use Notify for those services in our, our normal processing. 

 

We, we first started around coronavirus with Notify on a, what was a relatively small service, for informing individuals who were returning into the UK or who were being advised to isolate, so to provide advice during the 7 days isolation period. 

 

And since then our support has grown in the services. So we then utilised the Notify service to support provisioning information to patients who were identified as high risk should they contract coronavirus. So there, there’s individuals who have been asked to shield during the outbreak in order to reduce the chances of them contracting the virus. So we, we text messaged all of those individuals over a 7-so we issued them with 7 texts messages, so one per day, providing advice and guidance on, on what to do during their shielding period. 

 

That, that service has grown as, as more people who’ve been identified as being vulnerable, so working with GP practices and NHS England and NHS Digital to identify more individuals who, who may be vulnerable should they contract coronavirus. That, that has grown and we’ve issued more text messages and information to those individuals. 

 

We’ve used Notify to provide test results for coronavirus, working with NHS Digital and other partners. We’ve used Notify to also provide advice and information for individuals who go through the 111 service in providing text messages and also emails for those services.

 

Adding it all together, over the last 4 weeks, we’ve issued around about 17 million text messages via Notify through the services that we are, we are delivering, so. 

 

It’s, it’s scaling and it’s growing very quickly. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And so this is, the, the information you’re getting out there is obviously like, it’s really important it’s right, it’s really important that it gets to the right people, it’s an emotional service like, people are scared, like your users are concerned. So-why did you pick Notify to use this on, on these particular services? 

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah. So, So I mean Notify brings a lot of benefits. I, I think should also say that we, we, in terms of building those messages as well, we worked with colleagues in behavioural insights teams within government, Public Health England, NHSX, content designers, on all of those, and getting the content right was, was critical for these services. 

 

But you’re absolutely right, the infrastructure to send those services, those, those messages needed to be kind of stable and dependable. And, Notify does that, so it’s, it is national infrastructure that we can, can leverage all of the benefits of that having already been built as a government platform that we can consume, to, to use as a service really quickly, securely and safely and knowing that, that those messages will, will be passed. There’s lots of benefits that the Notify service has, has brought us.  

 

So if, frankly if we were having to do this without the Notify service, we wouldn’t have been able to do it. So that we, we would have been dependent upon trad-more traditional legacy contact methods, such as post, to individuals to inform them on, on this scale. We would had to build a, a technology solution to meet this need - we clearly didn’t have to do that, we could leverage something that was already built for this purpose. 

 

And, and this is the benefit of government as a platform that we can consume, you know, the first service we set up with Peter was done within an hour. We, we were able to from, from the request to us being then able to actually push text messages, it took less than an hour to, to go from A to B on that. And you know, without Notify we would have been looking at days, and, and in this situation of a, of a national pandemic, then time’s obviously absolutely critical you know, for people to be able to act upon the advice which has been provided - it’s, it’s, it’s genuinely critical. 

 

Yeah, so, so Notify brings all of those benefits - secure, platform, scalable, to be able to deliver those messages. Yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Can you tell me about some of the responses to these SMSs?

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah. For the shielded patients list and the text messages we sent the first cohort when we sent those, we enabled individuals to reply. And some, and we did some analysis on the replies to, to those messages and some of, some of the messages indicated, well some of the replies that we received indicated the difference that the service was really having. 

 

So you know the, the replies from people thanking, just saying thank you for informing us and like, they, they would follow the guidance and the maybe hadn't realised that they were in that high risk category beforehand. In this instance you know, we sent it out and we were able to see some of the replies and know that as a result of that action that was taken by sending that message out to an individual, there was an action that that individual was then going to take. And that action potentially, more than potentially, more than likely will result in a reduced risk of that individual being taken ill, and consequences of that. 

 

So yeah, it, it really does bring home that and highlight the importance of some of these services and how they all join together. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So, NHS Business Services Authority is obviously doing a lot of work, you’re working also with other organisations across government as well, aren’t you?

 

Darren Curry:

Yeah, so we, we are working alongside our partner organisations including so NHS England, NHS Improvement, NHSX, Department of Health and Social Care directly, Public Health England, the Behavioural Insights Team, GDS also and NHS Digital, have all, we’ve all collaborated and come together across on multiple different services that we are doing. So it’s been a real collaborative effort across the whole of the government family to get these services up and running.

 

Laura Stevens:

And had you, did you find you had to, ‘cause obviously it’s for use in like health services but it’s also used like in central government departments, it’s used by local authorities, it’s used in prison services, used by fire services. Like did you find you had to adapt it at all to the health context or was it all sort of ready to go for you? 

 

Darren Curry:

The great, one of the many great things about Notify is it works just out of the box. So from my development teams in the [NHS] Business Service Authority, it’s a, it’s a really easy integration point. So whether we’re integrating using an API to push the, the messaging or whether we're doing batch uploads of CSVs [comma-separated values files] or spreadsheets or whatever, it works for, for all of those things. 

 

I think the, the other thing as well to mention is, is that you know Notify, it’s a trusted service. So we were able to work with the National Cyber Security Centre [NCSC] as well to, to ensure working with the Notify Team and NCSC, to ensure that the messages we were sending were protected numbers. So it was you know again, just adding that, that security to the whole service when you’re doing critical services for people, that we can make sure that they’re trusted and they are known and protected. 

 

Laura Stevens:

If I’m playing this clip back to Pete, is there anything you want to ask him or anything you want the team to develop next? 

 

Darren Curry:

I, you know what, it’s a, it’s a really tough question because the, the Notify Team, it’s, it’s a fantastic service. And I think rather than asking Pete to develop anything else, I think my encouragement to Pete and the team is to take that time to reflect on the things that this service has enabled in a time of a national crisis and the things that him and the team have been able to enable, are awesome. And it’s easy to forget that. And 17 million messages to people who needed support, that would not have been achieved, will have genuinely saved lives and protected people.

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Wow. That’s awesome. Seeing the value that has to them and understanding that you know, without Notify being in place, that stuff just could not happen or you know wouldn’t have been remotely as effective as, you know I maybe hadn’t quite appreciated the, the extent of that.

 

So yeah, that’s pretty mind blowing. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. Yeah I think what Darren says well is articulate how this technology tool but how it translates to in people’s lives.

 

Pete Herhily: 

Yeah, makes it, it makes it very real, for sure. I, I think, I think, you know we’ve talked a bit in the past about how we can’t afford not to have these platforms in place, and, and that was before a global pandemic right? But, and it’s not you know, Notify’s not the only platform in town - we’ve got publishing, you know identity, payments - so but we need them, we can’t afford to not have them. Yeah, now more than ever I guess.

 

I just want my team to hear that. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you so much for Pete for coming on today. 

 

Pete Herlihy: 

Welcome. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms, and the transcript’s available on PodBean.

Government Digital Service Podcast #18: GOV.UK’s initial response to Coronavirus

Government Digital Service Podcast #18: GOV.UK’s initial response to Coronavirus

April 28, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer at GDS. And today’s episode is recorded a little bit differently, as we’re all remote now, this will be our first podcast done via hangouts. 

 

We’re going to be talking about GOV.UK’s initial response to the coronavirus. GOV.UK is the online home for the UK government, and it’s where millions of people access government services everyday. Of course COVID-19 does not need an introduction as the pandemic has affected all aspects of our lives.

 

In the first few weeks since lockdown began, GOV.UK has created products and services to help people understand what to do in these uncertain times. GDS has set up a landing page, built new services and now streams the press conferences live from GOV.UK. All of this work has helped people. It’s helped make sure food parcels are delivered to extremely vulnerable people, it’s helped businesses offer essential support, and it’s helped give people answers to important questions - like how to attend a funeral or manage a payroll. 

 

All this high-profile and important work is being delivered remotely, under intense scrutiny and at pace. To tell me more about this work is Leanne Cummings and Markland Starkie, both of the GOV.UK Team. So welcome both to our first remote podcast. Please can you tell me who you are and what your role on GOV.UK is.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Hello everyone. This is wildly exciting. This is my first ever podcast, so that’s great. I am Leanne Cummings, and I’m the Head of Product for GOV.UK.

 

Markland Starkie:

Hi, hello, hello. My name is Markland Starkie, and I am Head of Content for GOV.UK. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you’ve both been about, at GDS for about one and a half years, is that right?

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, that’s right. We both started around the same time roughly. So yeah, about a year and a half now.

 

Leanne Cummings:

And this is my first job in government. So I’ve joined at an, an exceptionally busy time, and I’m loving every minute of it so far. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah mine too actually. People, I think they’ve stopped saying that it’s not normally like this now. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

But I definitely heard that a lot for the first year, maybe up till last week pretty much. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I thought a timeline might be helpful, because things are moving so quickly. So I’m sure by the time this is published, there’ll be lots more things that the GOV.UK Team has done so we’re just going to be focussed on that initial response. 

 

So some dates. GDS started remote working fully on 17 March. The coronavirus landing page on GOV.UK was published Friday 20 March at midday. Three days later, on Monday 23, the extremely vulnerable people service was launched. And that evening Prime Minister Boris Johnson addressed the nation in a special broadcast. And then that Friday, on 27 March, the business support service was launched. And, on Tuesday 31 March, the first press conference was streamed live from GOV.UK. 

 

So that is an intense period of delivery over a fortnight. And there’s lots of firsts in there - first time working with 100% remote workforce, record numbers visiting the site and the first time a broadcast has happened from GOV.UK. And of course this work continues, it’s not just made live, it’s, it’s always being iterated and scaling up happens. 

 

But let's talk about that first product, the coronavirus landing page. So what, what is the coronavirus landing page, perhaps Markland, you’ll be able to answer that.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, yeah sure. So yeah GOV.UK/coronavirus, it is essentially the, the campaign landing page for all the government content for coronavirus support and information. 

 

We first started working on coronavirus information back in probably January actually. As part of our kind of business as usual stuff, we’re monitoring feedback that the public leaves on the website, and we noticed probably from about mid-January onwards, that we were getting an increasing number of comments and questions from the public around specific areas to do with coronavirus. And it was a real trickle at that stage but it was definitely, we could see it increasing. 

 

And we started working with mainly the Department of Health and Social Care [DHSC] and Public Health England [PHE] on kind of how to bring together some of the content that was being written around that time, and it was mainly in the healthcare space then. 

 

What we came up with was a, what we call, a topical events page, which is a kind of out of the box solution that we have. We could quickly see like throughout the beginning of February, as content was being generated across departments in government and Number 10 is thinking about this from a central point of view, and we could see public feedback and response to the content increasing as well. And we knew at a fairly early stage then that as the crisis escalated, it was going to become not just a healthcare issue but actually incorporating much wider things across government. 

 

As the crisis continued to escalate we knew that we would need something more bespoke to pull things together. And that’s where the conversation around a new bespoke landing page that would replace the kind of ‘out the box’ solution came into being. Once we had made that decision things moved very quickly. Obviously the government was responding extremely quickly to, to the escalation of the, of the crisis. And we knew we needed to get something out ahead of any further government announcement and action for, for UK citizens on coronavirus. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So for, when I was researching this podcast I spoke to Sam Dub, a former guest of this podcast but also a GOV.UK Product Manager, and he said he was yeah, given the brief on Monday and then it went from zero to live in 4.5 days. 

 

Markland Starkie:

And from there like it, we obviously took an MVP [minimal viable product] approach but actually the MVP covered quite a, a large range of user needs to the point where we, we’ve continued to iterate but we haven’t, we haven’t had to drastically change the designs or the functionality of it.

 

So on that Friday yes, the new landing page went live. We worked with the Department of Health [and Social Care] and Public Health England to take down the original topical event page and redirect that stuff through, and that was then in time for the, the Prime Minister announcements that happened in the following days to the public. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

This landing page received heavy traffic, so in the first 24 hours, there were more than 750,000 page views. And, in the first 7 days, there were 18 million page views. And as I was talking about record numbers earlier, there was a huge peak on the 24 March of 9.2 million, which is a record for the biggest ever spike in GOV.UK traffic. 

 

Markland Starkie: 

The thing that the landing page I suppose was able to do over and above the standard solution was really to bring together, in a more consolidated fashion, wider signposts to existing and new content across government. It also allows us the flexibility to redesign or extend or iterate on that landing page at pace, which we’ve been able to do in the, in the week since. So that’s based on ongoing research into the landing page and insights to move certain content around, add certain content that was missing in the first instance, and remove content that’s not working, all of those things.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was also, one of the reasons why it’s been able to be built quickly and iterated quickly, is we’re using other GDS tools that already exist, for example the GOV.UK Design System. Is that, was that, has been part of it as well? 

 

Markland Starkie:

Oh absolutely, yes. So without those things in place, like the Design System that you’ve mentioned, this would take weeks and weeks. So we’ve been able to take existing patterns, modify them where needed to. So being able to bring in elements whilst using existing patterns to really like kind of push it through at pace.

 

Laura Stevens:

And maybe this is a question more towards Leanne as well. This was the first ‘mobile first’ product is that right to say? Why was that important and why did you decide to do it like that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah, I believe it is. I believe it is the first one designed specifically on a mobile with the desktop being the alternative. We decided that, 2 reasons really. 

 

One the data showed us that mobile was increasingly the mechanism by which users are picking up government content, advice and services. And what felt more critical in this particular situation was it felt, there’s a reason for that being, that the coverage of mobile phones was much more prolific across a much wider set of people across the country than, than access to a laptop or access to an iPad could be. 

 

So this one felt absolutely critical that we nailed that experience on a mobile first. And I couldn’t be prouder of a team that turned this around in 4 and a half days with that as a new requirement. And honestly it was completely pushing on an open door, the team were really excited to make sure that in people’s hands, would be this critical information.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah.

 

Leanne Cummings:

So we did, we did a great job of that. And the data that we got, even immediately afterwards, was just absolutely underlined. I think it was something like, in the early days, it was something like 90% plus people were accessing through that mechanism.

 

Laura Stevens:

OK, shall we talk about these 2 new services? In the first week of launch, the extremely vulnerable service received more than 1.4 million page views. And for the second one, business support service, there were more than 40,000 page views in its first 7 days. 

 

But I think we first want to talk about the extremely vulnerable people service. Perhaps Leanne, could you explain what this service does and how it was set up?

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah. It was, it was a request that came from another, other departments actually. They, the NHS teams had acknowledged that there were a group of people that were, that had illnesses, critical illnesses often, that meant they were extremely vulnerable to coronavirus. So that meant that they had needs that had to be met, probably more isolated at home, and that included access to food.

 

So there was a list compiled of people that were likely impacted here, and that we needed to find a mechanism by which they could, they could let us know, let government know whether they needed help or not. So they were going to be contacted directly by the NHS teams via letter initially, and invited to, to go to a service that we built around answering, answering a series of, of simple questions around what their needs were in this situation. And that is the extremely vulnerable people service. 

 

So again we had some experience of building this kind of triage journey, and so that was kind of a, a pattern that we were familiar with, and again a really simple journey flow of what, finding out from you what the need is and how we could help you and then that feeds into a, a database and is, is actioned.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was this able to be stood up quickly because of other GDS work? We mentioned the Design System already but there’s also the GOV.UK Platform as a Service or PaaS. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yes for sure. I mean the shoulders of giants right? 

 

We have a lot of experience of, across GDS, of working at this kind of intense pace and response. So we’re prepared for certain spikes in behaviour that could be led by, obvious examples of that could be led by an election or whatever but we have experience of this kind of service deployment and so could forecast a bit what could happen and be very prepared for that. 

 

So there’s some things we won’t compromise on and stability is, stability and security are 2 of them. And again that, both of those things involve working with a wide range of genius teams across GDS, and wider but definitely across GDS.

 

Markland Starkie:

I do think it’s important to say like, while we have these services available to, across GDS. This is an, the unusualness of this particular situation in bringing all teams together across GDS, so not just GOV.UK as a programme like working on this, but as you say Platform as a Ser--like right across GDS, teams are working together has been a really amazing experience for, for me, myself, Leanne and others. To see that we’ve, we’ve all come together to, to sort this out. It, it’s just, yeah it’s great.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I couldn’t agree with Markland more on that. And our team is absolutely not the only team that has been under a significant amount of intensity, I could wax lyrical about all the teams. I don’t think we’ve got enough time for that. 

 

But Pete [Herlihy] and the Notify Team have worked incredibly hard on an intense period of, the thing that we featured on the landing page is around getting people who are overseas back into the UK and lots of emails going out and, and lots of message and and just such an, a massive amount of work across the group that we should definitely spend future podcasts describing in a massive amount of detail.

 

Laura Stevens:

I like that plug in there as well.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I’m really really available for future podcasts everyone. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And then can we also talk about the business support service.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Sure.

 

Laura Stevens:

Leanne, are you best to speak to that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think, I think we both can but this one is, this one is brilliant for its demonstration of how not only we at GDS are in it together but sort of the country is too. This was stood up to reflect a need for government, and for local authorities and for NHS to, they need a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff ranging from testing equipment, warehousing to keep things and, and lorries and lorry drivers to take things places. And so we stood up a service which allowed businesses to say, ‘yeah I’ve got some time and some people and, and some resources to enable us to pitch in here’. And we stood that up again really quickly, another really dedicated team across GOV.UK and wider GDS. 

 

And within, within I want to say hours but I’ve lost track of time, but within a really short time, 2,000 businesses had offered support across a huge range of, of different services. And honestly we’ve been a little bit emotional some of us across GOV.UK about many things - the, the, the type of work that is going on, the commitment from the teams, the commitment from GDS, the type of work going on across government but this was a real demonstration of, of the commitment of everybody being in this together so we did get a bit emotional, and I can still can so I might take a minute now and have a little moment.

 

Markland Starkie:

And I would also say just that the way we worked, or GDS worked, with departments like the wider Cabinet Office. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

Crown Commercial Service. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

The teams right across government who we really needed input on, to make this work at pace. It’s been, it’s been a real, eye, eye opener for me. I think working in government at this time, to see when it comes down to it we really can make a difference quite quickly.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah. And you don’t need to talk anyone into that, and that’s, and, and probably that is what you’d expect but you, you really don’t. It really is just a, a an exercise in everybody working together to try move things forward and get help to people that need it. 

 

Laura Stevens:

This is the first time that we’ve done a live broadcast from GOV.UK. So these are the daily press conferences, you can watch them from the coronavirus landing page, which is streaming this. And what was sort of the user need behind that, how did that come about being created?

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah it, it was a discussion with us and Cabinet Office Comms Hub and Number 10 around really having a central source for the press conference to be broad-broadcast, and obviously it makes sense that GOV.UK is, is the home for that. We, we provide the platform on which they can, we can stream. So that was built into an iterative, an iteration of the landing page.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I feel like and, if we sit as we do between, digitally between government and the user, it kind of makes sense for us to be showing that. And also reinforces that if you’ve got any queries, online queries about anything that is impactful to you around coronavirus, then this is the place to come and see if you can find that. So that just sort of reinforces that message too. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I, I also wanted to ask now, now we’ve spoken about the landing page and the 2 new services and the live broadcast that was set up, what sort of challenges did you face, and is there anything that you sort of wish you knew before you’d started this process, that would have helped you? And yeah, how have you, how have you sort of tackled that? ‘Cause obviously you’ve been working at such pace, is there sort of, have you had to reflect on those more challenging aspects of it?

 

Markland Starkie:

I, I think that is, it’s an ongoing conversation that we’re having at the moment. And yes, there have been challenges right throughout that. From, I guess from my point of view as Head of Content, it it’s trying to get ahead of and help departments coordinate having user-centred content, so clearly written, accessible content, going up on GOV.UK by yesterday.

 

And we, we realise, I certainly realised, that there is an element of we just need to get information out. And as policy is being decided across government, that information needs to get into the hands of citizens and businesses as quickly as possible and that, that means as we’ve been standing up new processes and new teams across government that have not worked with each other before, that it’s not going to be perfect. And it’s trying to kind of try and build in the processes that make the content better over time and more useful, useful over time.

 

But that’s been a, that’s been a sort of, real thing on my mind over the most couple of weeks is, is how we, we can continue helping government; because this, this is not just a, obviously, this is not just a GDS thing to tackle. There are countless teams across departments right across government who are all working to produce services, who are all working to produce content and define policy as quickly as possible using GOV.UK as the platform to surface these things through. And it’s our job to try and support them as best we can to make sure that those services are accessible, are usable, are clear etc. etc.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think it’s that, I think it’s exactly as Markland describes. I think this is unique, an unique challenge that we’re all facing. I guess it’s a lived experience as well as well as a worked experience so you, you’re experiencing it as a person as also as someone who’s trying to help navigate through it. So that gives you a little bit of insight into how you can really cut to the nub of what you know people might need to understand.

 

But the pace of change on that is, is, is, is rapid. So we have to react to that in, in new ways and put in processes whereby we can reflect on the landing page you know, the most recently announced policy or guidance that means that users who are seeing that are getting the most recent and up to date advice and guidance. So that is, it’s just a pace question really here then, then I’ve known it ever in, in government before.

 

I think there’s something, to answer the question in a slightly different way, there’s some things that I thought would be a bit more challenging; working remotely from teams of people that are used to bouncing ideas off each other, I was a little worried about that initially. When you’re building landing pages or services at pace, then often the best way to do that is get in a room. We’ll probably supply, supply pizza, there’ll definitely be a lot of Haribo. And I thought that was, was gonna be a really big problem. And in some ways it is a problem but not in anywhere near as big as we thought. And the products and services we’ve got out, I think haven't reflected the fact that we’re in 30 different houses across London and the south, it’s reflected a group of people who know what they’re doing, are committed to it, and are used to working in a certain way and they can do that in separate houses. And I think the only thing that I could say is we’re possibly a little bit healthier because of the lack of Haribo. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Agree with that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I also wanted to touch on how this work is tying in with the GOV.UK future strategy. I saw, I watched Jen Allum, the Head of GOV.UK, present her virtual talk at Code for America on Twitter, about how GOV.UK is moving to a place where it helps people with complex interactions by being personalised, low friction and data informed. And how does this work tie into that and, or does it just confirm your initial, your thinking with that?

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think it ties in directly when we’re thinking about - so the landing page collates information together around certain themes but some of our tooling starts to ask a, a, hopefully a simple set of questions but then enables a real doubling down for the user on the thing that impacts them the most in their particular set of circumstances. And that’s definitely a thing that we’re moving towards because that also acknowledges that, that people that are using these products and services aren’t sort of one dimensional, you’re not just a person with a business, you’re a person with a business and a family. 

 

And so it sort of addresses both those complexities in simple ways, and just tries to make that a bit more personalised to you and your set of circumstances where possible. So I think we’re reflecting the strategy in that way and, and is data driven. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah, I’d, I’d really agree with that. Obviously, a lot of the work that we were doing around Brexit over the past year and a half, was kind of like moving towards the early explorations of this set of scenarios you were just suggesting around personalised by consent, device agnostic, all of those things. And that, and that worked helped inform the future strategy that Jen was then talking about, and has been talking about recently. 

 

And this is the way that GOV.UK is going. The, the complex user journeys and complex user needs that Leanne was just talking about, they’re not going away. Like the more we understand about our users, the more individual those users become and the more we need to provide solutions that cater for that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I wanted to talk about something that’s been alluded to throughout this recording, and it’s about the sort of the coping with the stress and the demands of working in this situation. The work being done is under intense scrutiny, it’s high profile and it’s important that it’s right. So how are you both and how are the team, sort of, are there ways of working with this pressure? How, how are you faring with that?

 

Markland Starkie:

I think there’s a lot of swearing. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

There is, there is quite a lot of swearing for sure. I think we’re finding some time to do some regular things. I think we all understand the purpose of all this work, and in a funny way you’re in a luxurious position right? So, I’m telling myself this very much late at night and at the weekends, that you’re in a luxurious position where you can really put your shoulder in and help in a crisis. And a lot of people don’t get to say that, a lot of people this is just sort of happening to and so we are quite lucky, and that is felt across the programme. So, at the best of times, that is the best of times right, in terms of OK you get it, you’re on it. 

 

Markland’s right though. We are also finding time to hang out together a bit. And that’s with you know my peer group but the also the, the product teams where you just get to let off a bit of steam.

 

Markland Starkie:

Yeah. The teams on GOV.UK have been just incredible in this regard.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

The self organisation, just the pragmatic adult approach to this.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah.

 

Markland Starkie:

Everybody recognises the importance of the work that needs to be done, and this is not your normal you know, 9 to 5 whatever situation, and, and people have, where needed, really put in the hours to support the work and get it through. And then worked with each other to, to make sure that they’re getting time off and they can recuperate.

 

And this, this is obviously happening you know, right across government and beyond. Like all businesses are having to kind of reconfigure their working practices. But just seeing, from a personal point of view, just seeing the, however many people we have on the programme, just seeing them kind of self-organise around this and then allow us as kind of senior managers to try and bolster in support and kind of pull in extra people where necessary and where possible, has just been great to see.

 

Leanne Cummings:

And we’ve kept some of the rigour so we have, Jen does, Jen Allum the Head of GOV.UK does a regular weekly programme check in, which is what it says really. ‘Cause I guess that’s another thing, we’re all in this situation where we’re at home, so you definitely see the thing that you’re working on a lot, but you don’t necessarily get to see in the way that you would in a, in regular working office environment. But it’s another way we’re getting, everybody gets to celebrate the successes and help out when there’s a challenge. So there’s, we’ve, we’ve definitely kept to the rigour of how we work in the office a bit, and maybe just upped some of that because to, to cater for the fact that we’re all online.

 

Markland Starkie:

Definitely quite a lot of cats as well. 

 

Leanne Cummings:

Yeah, there’s cats. So there’s themes developing, and we definitely know a little bit more about each other than we did previously too. So that’s helping us cope because there’s quite a lot of teasing.

 

Laura Stevens:

And over these sort of, over the first few weeks where it really sort of ramped up, were there, was there any particular moments that stood out to either of you of being particularly like emotional or important or sad or just anything that just really stuck out to you?

 

Markland Starkie:

The first one to me was where we as the senior management team, got together and were like ‘essentially, right this is a thing. We now need to be pausing existing work, re-prioritising, talking to teams about what they need to do, making new teams out of existing teams and figuring out what’s next’. And, and it was that initial conversation that was like ‘right OK, it is time to, time to get on with it’.

 

Leanne Cummings:

I think for me, emotional about some of the delivery, which there’s usually a compromise, there’s a cost, there’s a compromise to delivering things rapidly. And I don’t think that the products that we have developed necessarily reflect that. I think that they’re the opposite of that, I think they’re brilliant products. The mobile first was an emotional moment for me on the landing page, for sure. 

 

And then, so all of those things definitely but I think the moments that have really got me more than I thought they would, are when people who are really tired, have done really long days, on Slack channels saying ‘well OK I’ve finished my bit, so does anybody need a hand with anything else?’. And I just feel like that’s the stuff that gets me every time. ‘Cause you wanna say ‘no dude, you definitely need to go and get some sleep now’. But they just wanna roll their sleeves up and get you know, good stuff out the door and that for me, is a sight to see.

 

Laura Stevens:

For sure.

 

So thank you both so much for coming on today, I know you’re both extremely busy so thank you again. 

 

Markland Starkie:

Thank you very much.

 

Leanne Cummings:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on PodBean. 

 

So thank you both again

Government Digital Service Podcast #17: International Women’s Day

Government Digital Service Podcast #17: International Women’s Day

March 9, 2020

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I'm a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And for March's episode, we're going to be celebrating International Women's Day.

 

In 2020 the theme for International Women's Day is 'each for equal'. The worldwide event’s tagline reads, “an equal world is an enabled world. How will you help forge a gender equal world, celebrate women’s achievement, raise awareness against bias, take action for equality”. So from this theme we wrote 3 questions and asked 9 women from across GDS for their opinion.

 

Let’s hear what they had to say. 

 

Which woman inspires you in digital government and why?

 

Charlotte Downs:

I’m Charlotte Downs, and I’m a Graphic Designer in the Communications Team. 

 

So I love this question, but I am going to cop out. I think I find it difficult to find a specific female that inspires me because individually everyone has different aspects to who they are that are great. And I learn from each of those different bits. 

 

So I’m inspired by lots of females, our team is mainly female. And I find that each of them, the resilience that they have and just the energy they bring to work, inspires me to be better in my work and in, and personally. 

 

Liz Lutgendorff:

I’m Liz Lutgendorff, I’m the Senior Research Analyst for the International Team. And as a side gig, I’m also one of the co-chairs of the Women’s Network at GDS.

 

I think I’m going to cheat a little bit on this one, because it’s really hard to pick just one. And especially I, I guess I’d focus on GDS because I most you know, that’s my main source of knowledge. But I think if you pick any person at GDS who’s working here, you’re going to find something really inspirational about them. 

 

Even just about you know, trying something that’s really frustrating to them, but might be easy to someone else, but just like putting yourself out there; if you’re scared of public speaking, people are doing speaker training so they can tell their stories about what they’re doing in digital, even though they’re kind of scared to death of it. 

 

So yeah, I’m just going to have a total cop out and say every single woman at GDS, from our HR people, to our Estates people, to our developers, everyone. Everyone is doing amazing things everyday.

 

Joanna Blackburn:

I’m Joanna Blackburn, I’m Deputy Director for Communications and Engagement here in GDS.

 

There actually, when I was asked this question, there are a lot of women out there who are quite inspirational in terms of breaking barriers, but the first person that really came to mind for me is a lady called Rachel Neaman. Rachael Neaman was, at the time that I met her, the first digital leader in the Department for Health. And at the time I was working at an ALB [arm's length bodies] where I was responsible primarily to move out existing websites onto GOV.UK. 

 

And the reason why Rachel comes to mind for me is because I met her while attending a meeting of very senior people across the Department for Health. And so it was quite an intimidating environment where everybody was of quite senior stature, and here I am in middle management sort of like feeling like an imposter. But I was so inspired by the way she challenged that group of people, and how she said it is their responsibility to drive digital transformation in their work and to role model leadership behaviours so that their teams will do the same. 

 

So for me, she’s one of the, one of those people that I really believe is transformational in digital transformation for government. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Can you tell me a story about gender equality in the workplace?

 

Sanwar Bopari:

I’m Sanwar Bopari, and I’m an Executive Assistant.

 

I’m really interested in the work that the Women’s Network are doing around the gender pay gap. I think it’s really important because it’s never quite transparent and it’s good to make it obvious to everyone.

 

Jen Allum:

I’m Jen Allum, and I’m the Head of GOV.UK.

 

We have diverse panels for recruitment at GDS. And one moment that really struck me recently was interviewing for a role in the GOV.UK programme. And the person we were interviewing referred throughout the interview only to men. So it was all references to he and him. To such a degree that I needed to ask if all of the people that he’d worked with were men. And of course he hadn’t. 

 

But the thing that really struck me about that was not so much that maybe that had happened, but that the colleagues I had on the panel, who happened to be male, hadn’t noticed it until I’d asked the question. 

 

And of course I’ve heard the argument about you know, when you hear ‘he’ what we mean is everyone, but I don’t buy that and language matters. So it was a really underlying moment for me in why we have diversity in our recruitment panels.

 

Leena Taha:

My name is Leena Taha, and I’m a Senior Content Designer on the Brexit Journeys Team. 

 

One of the people who I used to work with before, he would amplify the voices of other women in the room if they were ever ignored. For example, if we were ever in a meeting then, and somebody made a point that was later ignored, he would circle back to it and, ‘say so and so mentioned this earlier which was a good point’. Which really helped to make everybody's voices heard.

 

Laura Stevens:

What will you do this year to make GDS a better workplace for women?

 

Laura Flannery:

Hello I’m Laura Flannery, I’m a Senior Product Manager, I work on GOV.UK.

 

So I have the privilege of being the co-chair of the Women’s Network, I lead and co-ordinate the Women’s Network and the working groups within it. And we have a lot of things planned over the next year to make GDS a better place for women but also for everyone, because the knock on effects of what we do make GDS better for everyone. That’s an important point.

 

We’re working on the gender pay gap. We have a working group and we have an action plan. So we’re using data to understand what interventions are working to make the gender pay gap smaller. We have some training on career progression coming up so we’ll be teaching participants how to define milestones that they need to achieve their goals, helping them to gain clarity and direction and the confidence to pursue their aspirations. We’re also planning some public speaking training so helping people to build confidence, find their voice. 

 

We have a mentoring scheme that we set up a couple of years ago, and we’re going to operationalise that. So we’re handing it over to the People Team, so there is someone who will be looking after it and that is there, that’s part of their job. Because the Women’s Network is a network of volunteers so the fact that we’re able to do that is actually a really great sign and it’s you know, should have good impact across GDS. 

 

We’ve also recently done a survey on period products in the bathrooms. So GDS provides free period products for women, and reviewing that process so we can make it better to meet the needs of women here. And we’re running, we’re going to run lots of campaigns to raise awareness on certain topics, for example the gender pay gap, women's health, lots of other things. 

 

Jennifer Marks:

Hi my name is Jennifer Marks and I’m a Digital Delivery Advisor at the Future Relationships and Expert Services Team at GDS.

 

So I’ve been in GDS coming up to a year, it’ll be my first year anniversary in April, and the one thing I’ve really noticed is the Women’s Network do amazing work but there is one area which I think should really be on the agenda. And that is about women returners; that’s women who have for some reason or other, it’s usually motherhood, sometimes it could be care of relative, have taken career breaks. And they struggle to get back into the workplace, and these are women who, they have immense skill sets and yet because they’ve taken 2 maybe 3 years out of the workplace, or more, the workplace is suddenly closed to them. 

 

And it’s something I really would like to put on the agenda. I think it’s important. These are women who could have so much to offer, they have the skills, the ability and I think that they would be a great addition to GDS, and I’d like to look at how we can bring these women back into the workplace, what we can offer them. And I have had the benefit of working and volunteering with the Women’s Returner Network. Because I was one of those women, and I think it’s important to help promote other women, help other women make sure they have access to work and what they need to really shine through. 

 

Eliška Copland:

My name is Eliška Copland and I work as a Cyber Security Analyst. 

 

So I think that we all know that there is a shortage of women in technology. And it’s one thing to kind of hire more women, and there’s a big push to high more women in technology, but it’s also a completely different method to make them feel like they’re included and a valued addition to the team, and motivate them and drive them to their best. And I think that there are ways that this can be improved. And I think that some teams and some managers do it better than others, and I would like to just understand and learn more about how that, how that can be done. And again I would like to find male allies in this.

 

So that was, that, that’s one thing. I suppose then I also, just because one of the mottos of GDS is to be kind and be generous, I think generally us women in this male dominated field kind of need to be more generously speaking up when some kind of injustice is happening, either to ourselves or to others, but should do it in a kind way. 

 

But I think GDS is a wonderful place to, to work and I can’t stress enough that there isn’t that much injustice happening, and most of the time it’s, you meet absolutely wonderful people in this sector. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to everybody from across GDS who came in to talk today about International Women’s Day. 

 

And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read a transcript on PodBean. 

 

So thank you once again to everyone and goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #16: GOV.UK Design System

Government Digital Service Podcast #16: GOV.UK Design System

February 28, 2020

Laura Stevens: 

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service Podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a Creative Content Producer here at GDS. And today’s podcast is going to be on the GOV.UK Design System. 

 

The GOV.UK Design System is a collection of tools and resources for designing and building products and services. It provides styles, components and patterns that are accessible. This helps hundreds of teams across the public sector design and build services that are of high quality and can be used by anyone. 

 

The impact of the design system, created and managed by a team of 10 here at GDS, is significant. It’s used in central government, local government and has also been used by the NHS and international governments to develop their own design systems. It saves teams time and money and helps give people a consistent and accessible experience when interacting with government. 

 

To tell us more is Tim Paul, who is on the team who launched the GOV.UK Design System. Tim has also been at GDS for a long time, he was on the team that launched GOV.UK in fact as well. We’re also going to be hearing from people from central and local government about how the GOV.UK Design System has helped their work.

 

So yeah, welcome Tim to the podcast. 

 

Tim Paul: 

Hi there, how are you doing?

 

Laura Stevens:
Thanks for coming on today. And could you tell us what your job is here at GDS and how you work with the GOV.UK Design System?

 

Tim Paul: 

Yeah so I guess my official job title is Head of Interaction Design. But for the last couple of years, I’ve mainly been kind of doing that as a Product Manager really for the Design System. So that’s a thing that we kind of kicked off a couple of years ago and we’ve managed to build a team around that, and develop a suite of products. We launched those back in summer of 2018 and yeah, I’ve been product managing that and working with the team closely ever since.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So the Design System was launched back in July 2018. But what is the Design System made up of?

 

Tim Paul: 

So it’s essentially a suite of 3 different products. So you’ve got the Design System itself, which is basically a website with guidance and coded examples for designers and frontend developers to use to design and prototype and build public services. So that’s the first thing.

 

And then there’s a thing we call the GOV.UK Prototype Kit, and that’s a piece of software that designers in particular can download and install, and they can use it to rapidly create very high fidelity prototypes that they can take into user research. And they can test out ideas before their, their team commits to building anything. So they can find out what the right thing to build is.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul: 

And then the third thing, which underpins both of those, is a thing we call GOV.UK Frontend. And that’s essentially a frontend framework, so it’s all the Javascript and the CSS [Cascading Style Sheets] wrapped up into a nice package that developers can install into their projects. And so the Prototype Kit and the Design System both use GOV.UK Frontend and that means that designers and developers are both drawing from the same kind of library of components and patterns. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I heard you say before that you think of the Design System also as a service as well, what do you mean by that?

 

Tim Paul: 

Yes. So as well as the 3 products that we provide, we also offer support and training. We’ve helped facilitate contributions to the design system and we’ve run community events and we have regular hangouts with our community of users and contributors. So we really think of the whole thing together as being an actual service, and we have you know, a multidisciplinary team to support both the products and that service. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when you were talking about the different parts of the GOV.UK Design System, for people who are listening and don’t know what a component is or a pattern or a style. Could you explain what those things are please? 

 

Tim Paul: 

Yeah, ok, I’ll have a go.

 

So when we first started out - figuring out how to make this thing, we did a lot of thinking about what were the things that were going to be inside the Design System. There’s no really established language for talking about this stuff. Although design systems as an idea are fairly well established now. 

 

So in the end we settled on 3 definitions. And so we have what we call styles. And they’re the really low level building blocks that everything else is made out of. So it’s things like colour palettes and how your typography works and how your page layouts work and your grid system and so on. So those are the styles. 

 

And then one level up from that if you like, we have things that we call components. And so components are chunks of user interface, UI. So they’re visible things that you can compose onto a webpage and that, and, and that makes your service. So it’s things like drop-down lists and tables and navigation and headers and footers. And all our components are built using code, the code that we provide in GOV.UK Frontend. And so that’s what a component is.

 

And finally one level up from that we have things that we call patterns, and patterns are a little bit more abstract. They’re centred around common needs that users of public services have. So for example, lots of public services require that people enter information about themselves like their name or their address and so on, and so we have design patterns which explain the best most usable way that we’ve found, to ask users for that kind of information. 

 

And, we have even higher level design patterns so for example, it’s quite common that a public service has eligibility requirements that, that, that users must meet if they are able to use that service. And so we have a pattern for example, which explains how best to help users understand whether or not they can use your service, so that they don’t waste time trying to apply for a benefit or something that they don’t actually meet the requirements for.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so now I feel like I, I know what it’s made up of, I know what those words mean. But why are design systems good for government? And in a previous presentation I found in the Google Drive in my research, you said the national motto of design system teams is ‘efficiency, consistency and usability’

 

Tim Paul:

Oh yeah, I did say that didn’t I?

 

Laura Stevens:

Would, is that why they’re good or have you changed your mind? 

 

Tim Paul:

I guess, no that’s almost been one of the most stable beliefs that we’ve held throughout the whole kind of time we’ve been developing these resources. There, there do seem to be 3 pretty stable fundamental user needs that things like design systems are good at meeting. And, and that’s that public services needs to be efficiently built, we don’t want our tax payers’ money to be wasted in people like reinventing the wheel up and down the country in different teams.

 

They need to be of a high quality. So they need to be really accessible and usable. And they need to be consistent with each other. So one of the big reasons that we made GOV.UK in the first place was to try and create a single unified consistent user experience for all government services because that helps people to be familiar with those services, which means that it makes them more usable. But it also kind of fosters trust because it’s much easier to recognise when you’re using a legitimate government service if they all look the same. 

 

And the way that design systems help with those things is that you have this common suite of components and patterns that are ready made, pre-built, they’ve already been tested for things like usability and accessibility. And so that lifts up the quality because people are re-using existing things, it means that they’re not developing them themselves so that makes teams more efficient and productive. And again because they’re re-using the same suite of components and patterns, it means that different services made by different teams in different parts of the country in different departments, are all consistent with each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think that’s a point that I wanted to pick up on, is because I think as a user coming to GOV.UK, it looks like it’s just one big website.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

But it’s actually being managed, and being delivered simultaneously, by different teams up and down the UK. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yes. So like you say GOV.UK presents as this single, quite large website that’s full of different services and information and that’s entirely intentional, that was always the vision for GOV.UK. But we, anybody who’s worked on it knows that under the hood, it’s hundreds and hundreds of separate websites and they're owned and managed by different teams in different departments up and down the country. There is no single tech stack for the public sector or for government, there’s hundreds and hundreds of different ones and we don’t try to control what that stack should be. 

 

And so the challenge that we’ve always faced is like how do we let all of those teams work pretty much independently of each other, but deliver something which is coherent and consistent and feels like a single user experience. And this is, this is what design systems are really good at because they, they provide this centralised resource that all teams can draw upon and contribute back to. 

 

So not every organisation, or large organisation, requires a design system necessarily but I think government is maybe almost the best example of an organisation that can benefit from, from a tool and a service like this.

 

Laura Stevens:

So yeah, we’ve got GOV.UK as this, appearing as one site but actually being operated by lots and lots of different teams up and down the country. So is that who’s using the Design System, all these different service teams?

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, so we think that most users of the Design System are probably designers or developers working in, on, in services teams in different departments up and down the country. And we’ve tried lots of different ways to measure usage, it’s important that we know who’s using our service and how and what problems they might be facing, so that we can improve the service for them.

 

So one thing we have looked at in the past is, is web traffic. That’s just visitors to the Design System website. And that’s quite useful for showing month on month growth. I think since we launched, we’ve grown the number of visitors to the site by about 250%. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So impressive figures.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, yeah! It’s, we’re happy with that.

 

Laura Stevens:

I wanted to ask about the community element of the Design System. So people are able to contribute their own patterns and how, so in terms of the number of patterns or number of components now, are most of them done in GDS or do, are they generally done from people who have contributed? How does that work? 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. So from the outset really, we wanted to make sure that what we built was owned by the community of designers and developers in government, and was easy to contribute back to. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. One is that we’re, GDS is at the centre of government and that’s really helpful as a way to kind of propagate out best practice and so on, but it does mean that we’re kind of one step removed from the actual end users of citizen facing services and staff systems and so on. It’s really the teams in the other departments that are closest to those users. And so we really rely on them to feedback into the Design System about, about whether components or patterns are working or not. Maybe they’ve found ways to improve upon them, maybe they have ideas for brand new components and patterns that, that we don’t realise are needed. And so like I say, from the very beginning we were trying to figure out ways to, to kind of foster a community of collaboration and contributors. 

 

And so we initially populated the Design System with maybe about 30 or 40 components and patterns that we already knew were needed by government. Some of those we brought in from our previous design tools. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

But since then we’ve had about 18 new components and patterns published over the last year and a bit. And I think of those 18, about 13 of them have been external contributions. So things that have been built by people in service teams somewhere else in government, from MoJ [Ministry of Justice] or DWP [Department for Work and Pensions] or HMRC [HM Revenue and Customs] and so on, and then contributed back to the Design System. 

 

And so we from kind of experience with our previous tools, our legacy products, that contribution is difficult and it certainly doesn't happen for free and it doesn't happen at all unless you do a lot of work to facilitate it and so on. So we put a lot of effort into developing the necessary processes and the governance and the assurance so that when people made a contribution, they knew what to expect and they knew the criteria that they needed to meet and that there were people available to support that contribution. And then other people who are available to kind of assure the quality. 

 

So what we’re hoping is this, by this, by making this process really open, it kind of encourages trust in what we’re doing, and it means that the work that we’re publishing isn’t biased, in favour of any one department and so on. And that it, and that it actually reflects the needs of teams in government.

 

Laura Stevens:

So how does it make you feel having so many patterns and contr-and components now being able to be contributed? Because, this, this hard work of making it decentralised, making it open is working.

 

Tim Paul:

It, I think it is working, I think we’ve learnt a lot along the way. We’ve certainly learned that it’s harder than we thought it would be. I mean we thought it would be hard, but it’s even harder than we thought it would be. I think perhaps we were tempted to think in the early days that contribution was like a shortcut to scaling.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

That like by opening our doors and letting people contribute, we could grow rapidly and it would like solve all our problems that way. And actually over the last year or so, I think what we’ve realised is that facilitating and assuring contributions is often as much work as doing the work yourself. We should probably have realised that at the time. And so I think it does let us scale but not to the extent that perhaps we thought it would.

 

So yeah, we think that aside from scaling, there are other real concrete benefits to, and I’m encouraging contribution on one of those, is that when people make successful contributions to the Design System, they tend to be pretty strong advocates so they almost act as like people doing engagement in departments on our behalf.

 

But also, and perhaps more importantly, the more people from service teams in other departments make contributions to the Design System, the more representative the Design System is of what those teams need. And so it just really helps us make sure that our product is actually genuinely meeting the needs of our users. 

 

If we were doing all the work ourselves in the centre, then, then there’d be a really strong risk that what we were producing was only really meeting the needs of the teams that we were closest to. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And I think that leads very nicely on. Because we’re now going to hear a clip from somebody who uses the Design System who isn’t from GDS.

 

Tim Paul:

Ah.

 

Laura Stevens:

It’s from Adam Silver, who previously worked at the Ministry for Justice, or MoJ Digital. So yeah and MoJ is the second largest of the 24 ministerial departments, so it’s a big department.

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And yeah, he’s going to talk about using the GOV.UK Design System and also about the MoJ specific Design System as well. 

 

Adam Silver:

I’m Adam Silver, I’m an Interaction Designer working at the Department for Education, and previously I’ve worked at MoJ Digital and HMCTS [HM Courts & Tribunals Service] as well.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could I talk to you about your work with the GOV.UK Design System on the service claim for the cost of a child’s funeral, which is a highly emotional service and also one that had to be delivered at pace in 6 weeks in fact. So how did having this centralised system help you in that?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah so we used the MoJ form builder, which is a tool that lets you create and deploy digital forms live, live to a URL without spinning up your own dev team. And under the hood, that form builder uses all of the components and patterns of from the GOV.UK design system. So that meant we didn’t have to spend a whole load of time thinking about text boxes, radio buttons and all of, all of the good stuff that’s already been solved brilliantly. And we could just focus on the specific needs of our service, and filling in the gaps where the GOV.UK Design System didn’t have a solution for that.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so in that way, was it saving you time, was it saving you hours of work, what was it helping you with?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah, it saved, saved a lot of time. Because instead of focusing on all those things we could focus on just the needs of our service. So for example, we needed to think about how to ask users for their bank details because we needed to make a payment for them for their claim. And we also focused on things like how to upload files because they had to provide evidence for their claim by uploading copies of their receipts. And those, those 2 particular components and patterns aren’t covered really in the GOV.UK Design System. So that’s where we could really focus our attention.

 

And the other thing was that when we were doing an accessibility audit before we launched, we could focus most of our attention on the new patterns that we knew might not be up to the level of quality, or level of accessibility, that all of the other components that, like the text boxes and radio buttons in the GOV.UK Design System. 

 

Just that it’s so, so real, it’s just so good. Just the quality of the guidance, the quality of the patterns, the components themselves is excellent. It plays really nicely into the prototype kit. And when I have worked on department specific design systems, it plays nicely with those ‘cause. So we’ve, we’ve... At HMCTS and MoJ Digital, we had our own department design systems and we had to extend and build on top of the GOV.UK Design System. So that was, that was another really good thing. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Could you sort of speak then to how important having this centralised GOV.UK design system is to different departments across government?

 

Adam Silver: 

Oh yeah, absolutely. I mean we have several services at MoJ that were asking people for their bank details. And during our research there are many many government departments that have many many services of their own that are also asking for their bank details. So there is a lot of duplication of effort there and a lot of inconsistency between them. Not, not major inconsistency but little inconsistencies and those can, those things can, can add up to creating a less than ideal, tricky user experience. 

 

So having that centralised and standardised in GOV.UK Design System adds a tremendous amount of value along with everything else that is centralised in, in the system.

 

Laura Stevens:

How does the community behind the design system help you in your work?

 

Adam Silver:

Yeah, so well, that’s, it’s majorly helpful. It’s one of my favourite things about working in gov [government] actually, is, is the huge design community who are just willing to, to help. On, on Slack, there’s like thousands of people on there and they’ve, there’s always somebody that’s either come across your exact problem or they’ve come across something similar and can help out.

 

And then the backlog itself, or, or the more specific help around the design system, I mean the team are real-super friendly. You get to know them individually, they’re always there to, to help. And having someone dedicated on support each, each day on Slack is, is massively massively helpful, knowing that you can go to one place to get help is, yeah, I can’t, I can’t just, I can’t commend it enough really. It’s super valuable to me and it’s, I know that it’s been super valuable to other people I’ve worked with as well. 

 

The community backlog is really good because if there isn’t something in the design system then you know that there’s going to be...well there’s a very very good chance that somebody has put their own designs into the backlog. Just some screenshots, just some explanation and then some discussion. And that, that will get you going so you don’t have to start, you’re never, you’re never really starting something from scratch because somebody has always done something. And somebody, sorry. Sometimes somebody has done more than something. There’s, there's a lot of contributions on some of the backlog tickets as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So Kellie Matheson, who works at MoJ Digital, also spoke at Services Week 2020 about having two Design Systems and working with that. How do you, how, what’s been your experience of using two design systems at once?

 

Adam Silver:

So it’s not, it’s not the ideal situation. It’s because, the reason why I think design systems appear in departments is, is because, well for 2 reasons. One is that GOV.UK Design System just can’t go fast enough in accepting contributions which is kind of what I was talking about earlier. They’re just not resourced enough I don’t think. It takes a lot of effort to build out a component.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Adam Silver: 

So that, that’s one reason where a department could move a little bit faster. Quality might be a tad lower but they can move a bit faster. Because they’re not worrying about the needs of the whole of government, they’re just worrying about the needs of their department of the needs of a programme within a department, sometimes that’s the case. And the other reason is because there are literally department specific patterns. But I see it as a temporary solution while, until the GOV.UK Design System can pull those patterns in. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you, on your blog post, you also contributed a pattern along with your colleagues Amanda Kerry and Gemma Hutley, what was that pattern?

 

Adam Silver: 

That was how to ask users for their bank details. So as part of the, as part of the Child Funeral Fund service that we were designing, the main, the main point was that the user is claiming back the costs. So to do that they need to provide their bank details and that way we can, during the claims process, make that payment to them. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And what was it like to contribute your own pattern to that, or your team's pattern to that?

 

Adam Silver:

The reason why I wanted to contribute the bank details pattern was because while we were designing the service, there was no actual pattern existing for the bank details. And we looked in the backlog and we talked to people across government and in our own department as well, and there was no, there was no solid example of how to, how to ask for it. There was lots of different good examples but there was no one way. So that’s something that we had to tackle during the 6 week period. 

 

And so it would have been a real, it would have saved us a lot of time if that did, if that pattern was part of the GOV.UK Design System. So we thought ok well look, we’ve learnt quite a bit about it by searching around what other people have done, and we made a decision ourselves for our service. So why don’t we use what we’ve learnt, work a little bit harder and contribute it back. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So I’m sitting here with Tim Paul...And so you can ask him anything, what do you ask him?

 

Adam Silver:

Hi Tim, I would ask you how to quantify the value of a design system?

 

Laura Stevens:

So a nice easy question there. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah, thanks Adam! 

 

Laura Stevens:

But I did actually hear there was, I did actually see this was, this was your talk in Services Week 2020, wasn’t it?

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. Yeah. So first of all, that was really good to hear from him. And yeah. One of the things we’ve always known that we need to do, and any team will need to do, is to somehow quantify the benefits of the thing that you’re delivering. Design systems are no exception. But it is quite hard to do that because of the nature of the service and the products I think. They’re not transactional services, you can’t watch people kind of go through them, people aren’t signed in when they use it and so measuring how many people are using your service and product is tricky enough.

 

And then quantifying the actual material benefits is also not that easy. It’s all about productivity and that’s quite a hard thing to measure. These aren’t small tasks that can be done in a few minutes where you can, can easily measure how much faster people get. These are tools which help people over the course of days and weeks and months in quite unpredictable and subtle ways. 

 

So we’ve always struggled a little bit. Although I think this quarter we’ve gotten a little bit better at this stuff. And so we were joined by Roxy, who’s a Product Manager in GDS, and she’s really helped us deliver a kind of economic model and, and a business case for how, how much benefit the Design System is, is giving people. And so we did a fair amount of research, we did lots of analysis of things like repos on Github. 

 

And we fed all of this information into an economic model, we worked with an economist called Parri. We, we, we had lots of other data points. Our user researcher Rosie did, at quite short notice, did some really good research where we interviewed around 10 designers and dev-developers from different departments, and we got them to talk about their experience of using our tools. We got them to do the very uncomfortable thing of like trying to, trying to tell us how much more or less productive they were using our tools and not using our tools.

 

Laura Stevens:
Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

Which is a, it’s a really tough ask. But people did tell us and we got enough data points that we figured taking an average and going with a conservative version of that average was sufficient. And so feeding all of this stuff together, and thinking about how many teams are actually using our products and for how long and so on, we got to a kind of round figure of, we think we’re probably saving the government about £17 million pounds a year right now 

 

And that’s based on the assumption that without the Design System, government would need to spend about that much money to deliver the same services of a similar quality. So yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And were you, did you think the figure would be about £17 million or did you...

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah..I don’t know. I guess it was higher than maybe I was expecting.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yeah. Yeah. But one of the things we’re really keen to do is focus as much as we possibly can on, on the more qualitative benefits of Design Systems.

 

Laura Stevens:

Sure.

 

Tim Paul:

Rather than treating them as a kind of efficiency tool. They definitely do help teams work more productively but what we’re really hoping is those teams use their excess capacity to deliver better services. And so Adam kind of touched on that. Because they don’t have to worry about checkboxes, and radio buttons and headers and footers and making those all accessible and usable, they can spend that time that they’ve saved focusing on the actual service itself, and the content design, and the service design and the policy design and so on. And that’s really where the gains are to be had for individual service teams.

 

Laura Stevens:

Adam also referenced about how there are other individual organisations using their own design systems, they’ve made up their own design systems. Why do you think places have created their own versions?

 

Tim Paul:

There have always been other design resources made by other teams and departments in government, and that should come as no surprise. For the most part these are people with quite similar missions and goals to ourselves.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

They’re trying to solve the same problems but at the level of their individual programme or department. And so a couple of years ago when we were initiating this work, we made a conscious decision to, to not treat them as rivals or competitors or in some way a symptom of failure. They’re really just people who are trying to solve the same problem.

 

And so we, r-rather than go around and try and s-shut them down or anything like that, we made friends with these people, these people are now contributors and we try and work closely together with them 

 

Laura Stevens:

And not only is the GOV.UK Design System helping in central government, but it’s also being, helping across the public sector in local government and the NHS. And we’re now going to hear from Emma Lewis, from Hackney, about her experience of using the Design System in a local authority. 

 

Emma Lewis:

I’m Emma Lewis, I am the Lead Frontend Developer at the London Borough of Hackney. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

What is the London Borough of Hackney doing with design systems?

 

Emma Lewis: 

So we have our own Hackney Design System and Hackney Pattern Library, and both of those are based on top of GOV.UK Design System and GOV.UK frontend respoistry. So we have our pattern library is called LHB Frontend. Which is essentially a copy of GOV.UK frontend which also imports GOV.UK frontend and we build on top of that. 

 

So we have a bunch of different components, some of which are basically identical to the GOV.UK components but they have sort Hackney, ‘Hacknified’ styles or small colour changes, spacing tweaks, things like that. We have some components that are actually identical to GOV.UK and some components that are completely new to Hackney because they're more local government focused.

 

Laura Stevens: 

What have been the benefits to you working in local government, for using a central government design system?

 

Emma Lewis: 

I mean it’s been huge. So having all of these things just out of the box sort of we can use, it’s such an enormous time saver. But also having things like we, you know, we know they are accessible. So it means the services that we’re providing to residents and staff are so much better than they would have been otherwise. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I think a lot of people respond to with the GOV.UK Design System is also that community element of it. Has that helped you as well at the council?

 

Emma Lewis: 

Enormously. There’s no-one else really experienced at frontend development that I work with, and having that community of people who I can ask questions to, is such a positive thing. And likewise I am so grateful for the GOV.UK Design System that it means I want to contribute and I think other people feel like that. 

 

So I’ve contributed a couple of pull requests that are like really really tiny minor changes but feels good to do that. And it’s something that I want to do. And I think you see that with other people in the community who aren’t necessarily working centrally at GDS but have benefited from it so want to contribute something.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Why is having a design system a good thing for local government?

 

Emma Lewis: 

It’s...there are lots of different reasons. The main, the first reason is consistency. So it means that you know, any of our products that use that design system are going to look the same and that means, that’s really good for lots of different reasons. It means we’re not duplicating code in lots of different places. So you know, if something changes we don’t need to update it in loads of different places, there’s just a central place where all of that stuff comes from. And that’s something that developers love.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

But also I think accessibility is a huge thing. The time and resourcing that goes into making a design system like GOV.UK, like I’ve never seen the amount of effort that goes into a component be put into that kind of thing outside of a design system. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

And so making sure that it is accessible means that it’s usable by all of our residents and that’s really important. And we, one of our missions at Hackney is to create digital services that are so good that people prefer to use them.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

And in order to do that, they need to be available to work for everyone and that’s like incredibly important.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So this is a bit of a, like a retrospective question. What do you wish you knew, or to anybody who is listening from a local authority, from a local borough, before you started creating the Hackney Pattern Library?

 

Emma Lewis: 

I think 2 things that spring to mind. One of which is how important your decisions are when you start doing something like that. So I think I hadn’t appreciated how difficult it can be to change things down the line. And this is something that...so Nick [Colley] and Hanna [Laasko] who work on GOV.UK frontend actually we’re really kind and came into Hackney to talk to us about the design system. And they were talking about how hard it is, or how bad it is to make breaking changes.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

So you know, changes to the design system or pattern library that are going to break things for users of the older versions. And that’s something that I wasn't, I hadn’t really thought about much until that conversation. And now, we’re sort of 6 months into our first version of our pattern library, and I’m starting to see, ‘oh I wish I’d done that differently’. And you know really feeling empowered to take the time at the beginning and think about those considerations about how you’re doing something and whether it is the right thing and what possible use cases there might be down the line, can be really helpful.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how, what are people using it, what sort of stage are you at?

 

Emma Lewis: 

So I’m doing some work at the moment with our mapping team, who create all sorts of maps for residents and for staff to look at, from things like where water fountains are, are in the borough to planning applications and all sorts of different things. And we’re coming up with, I suppose sort, it’s sort of similar to a design system in a way, we’re trying to come up with this sort of map template that we can use to show all different kinds of data. And I was just showing them really quickly yesterday how to use the design system to put a header and footer on the page, and their faces were just like lit up. It was so exciting that this was suddenly all available to them. 

 

Like using the GOV.UK design system has been an incredible time saver. Like I can’t, we wouldn’t have a pattern library now if we’d had to build everything from scratch. It just. We have so many different projects on and we don’t have the people to build something like that, and by having that, it’s mean that, not only that we can use it on projects going forward, but we’re also massively reducing the amount of time it takes to build all those individual projects as well. So it’s been, it’s just been enormous in terms of the time it saved and like I said, the community around it. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Emma Lewis: 

The support that’s been provided with it. 

 

Tim Paul:

That was really really nice to hear that. It’s so, so gratifying I think to all of us on the team when other people reuse our work. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

It’s one of the best things about working in government and in the public sector is that we can be happy about the fact that people are stealing our work. In fact we kind of strongly encourage it. So yeah, that’s, that’s great. It’s, it’s doing exactly what we hoped it would do. 

 

So we’ve known for quite a while there’s huge potential beyond central government for, for the work that we’re doing, not just ourselves but alongside our contributors, to, to benefit local government and even as far as international governments. We’ve, we’ve got I think we know about 5 different local authorities which are in some way using GOV.UK Frontend, and we’ve got a couple of other governments from other countries who are using our work as well. So this is really really good.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in both those clips, both Emma and Adam, they both spoke about accessibility and how having it tested to the level AA of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines or WCAG. 

 

Tim Paul:

Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that right?

 

Tim Paul:

That’s correct, yeah. 

 

So this is, this has turned out to be a huge driver I think for adoption of the Design System because there this standard called the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, it’s been around for a while, it’s in version 2.1 now. But the thing that has changed recently is that meeting level double A of that standard has now become an actual requirement, not just of central government services but the whole of the public sector by this September. 

 

And so suddenly there’s a real strong need by teams everywhere to make their services fully accessible. And that’s pretty difficult. There’s lots you can do it make it easier like building in accessibility from the very beginning is probably the best way you can make your life easier here. Retrofitting accessibility is, is always a terrible experience for everybody. 

 

But it turns out that making even simple things like buttons fully accessible across the full range of assistive technologies, devices and browsers, is actually pretty involved, difficult work. You’ve got lots of testing to do, you’ve got, the state of assistive technologies at the moment is still probably not as mature as it could be, which means there are lots of weird little bugs and kinks.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

Funny little idiosyncrasies across all the different technology stacks. And so the work that we do in the centre is to do all of that testing and iron out all of those bugs and figure out how to make these things work across all of the assistive techs that we know that people use. And that level of work, that depth of work is probably not a thing that an individual service team could or should be spending its time doing. They’ve got the full service to worry about and they really shouldn’t be spending the amount of time that we can spend on, on making low level components fully accessible. 

 

So it’s one of the things I’m happiest about because it’s something that we can really contribute to.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in, you mentioned as well that we’re not only helping central government, local, NHS but we’re also going abroad as well. And in March 2019, the New Zealand Digital Service published a blog about how they used the GOV.UK Design System to help create their own. So, and they had a quote in there saying: “We decided not to reinvent the wheel so we’re building on the GOV.UK Design System, a system with years of development. It’s a mature and proven Design System with full rigour and accessibility and testing”. So what does having that sort of reach and international impact feel like for you and the team here at GDS?

 

Tim Paul:

It’s really nice, it’s kind of flattering. Yeah it also feels a little bit scary.

 

I think Emma alluded to the issue of having dependencies and breaking changes and things like design systems. And that’s a thing that we’ve experienced as well. So if you’re working on a service team in an agile environment, then the idea that you can iterate rapidly and fail fast and all of that, it’s great, it works really well. It doesn’t quite translate when you’re building a central code resource because if you’re iterating rapidly, if you’re failing fast, if you’re making lots of breaking changes, then you’re disrupting the work of everybody who’s relying on your code base. And so we end up being a lot more conservative, we end up moving slower and at a much measured kind of careful pace. And that’s because we are intensely aware that everybody using our tools is going to be disrupted by any breaking changes we make.

 

And so when we hear that you know, another country or local government authority is using our service, it’s really really good but it really hammers home to us how careful we have to be not to break things for them as well.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think there’s a way of fixing that? Or is that just an inherent problem with having a central design system?

 

Tim Paul:

I think probably the way to address that challenge is to not try to create some uber design system for the world, which would be the egotistical response to that challenge. 

 

You know the internet is supposed to be made up of many parts loosely coupled, and that’s what we should be trying to do here. So making sure that people can use our tools as the foundation for the things they need, and that we have nice productive feedback mechanisms between, between those. That’s probably the right way to approach this.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is there anything where you’ve seen the Design System used in a way that you just never expected it to be used, or it popped up somewhere that you...

 

Tim Paul: 

We’re, we’re sometimes asked about doesn’t, don’t, don’t these products make it really easy to make fake versions of GOV.UK, which is a really valid question. And the answer is yes, they do. They make it easy for anybody to make things look like GOV.UK. But to be honest if your motivations are to trick people, then it’s always been pretty easy to make fake versions of a website. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Tim Paul:

So we’re not making it that much easier for the scammers, but we’re making it a lot easier for the service teams who are building legitimate services. But yes, every now and then we see, we see a dodgy looking GOV.UK site and we see our own code in there, and that’s kind of weird but you know there’s a whole bit of GDS which is dedicated to spotting that stuff and getting it taken down so.

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you so much to Tim to coming on today and also to Emma and to Adam for talking about the GOV.UK Design System. And you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read the transcript of Podbean. 

So thank you again and goodbye.

 

Tim Paul:

Thank you.

Government Digital Service Podcast #15: Accessibility

Government Digital Service Podcast #15: Accessibility

January 30, 2020

 

Laura Stevens:

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast, and the first one of the decade. My name is Laura Stevens and for regular listeners of the podcast, I now have a new job title as Creative Content Producer here at GDS.

 

And for the first podcast of 2020 we’re going to be speaking about accessibility. Everybody has to interact with government, people cannot shop around and go to different providers so there’s an obligation for government to make its services as accessible as possible. At GDS accessibility is considered in everything we do. It’s one of our design principles, we publish accessibility guidance on GOV.UK and we want to make sure there are no barriers preventing someone from using something.

 

And to tell us more about accessibility at GDS, I have Rianna Fry and Chris Heathcote. Please can you both introduce yourselves and what you do here at GDS. So Rianna first.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, so I’m Rianna and I am a Senior Campaign Manager here at GDS. So my job is helping to tell more people about all the great stuff that GDS does. And one of the main things at the moment is accessibility. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And Chris?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Hi, I’m Chris Heathcote, I’m a Product Manager and Designer at GDS. So I’m running the team that will be monitoring websites for accessibility going forward.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes, and there’ll be more on that later in the podcast.

 

So I just thought a good place to start, because as I mentioned GDS has to design for everyone, so to give a sort of sense of the needs of the population we’re designing for I have a few statements for you both. And I’m going to ask you whether they’re true or false. 

 

  1. So true or false, 12 million people in the UK have some kind of hearing loss.

 

Rianna Fry: 

True.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That sounds true.

 

Laura Stevens: 

It is true. Second statement. 6.4 million people in the UK have dyslexia. 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That sounds true as well.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, it does.

 

Laura Stevens: 

It is true as well. And thirdly, 2 million people in the UK have significant sight loss. 

 

Rianna Fry:

True. 

 

Chris Heathcote:

At least 2 million I would have thought, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. You are correct, they’re all true.

 

Rianna Fry:

Do we, do we win something?

 

Laura Stevens:

I’m afraid I didn’t bring a prize and now I’m being shamed, I’m sorry. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Right, OK. Sorry.

 

Laura Stevens: 

But all these stats are from the GDS accessibility empathy lab. And this is a space at GDS which helps raise awareness about accessibility, and also is an assistive technology testing space. And there’s another poster in the lab that says when you design services, you need to think about permanent, temporary and situational accessibility needs. 

 

What does that mean?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So I think I’ll touch on situational accessibility needs. So for me that was one of the most sort of light bulb moments when I came to work on this project with Chris and the rest of the team. So often when we talk about accessibility, I think a lot people naturally think about disabilities that people might have, like motor disabilities or sight impairments for example. 

 

But obviously at some point, they’re, we’re in situations that prevent us from being able to use digital services, perhaps in the way that they’re initially intended. So if you just think about social media. So my background is in digital marketing so thinking about videos. Obviously captions are massive and subtitles for videos because when you’re on the tube, you can’t always hear what you’re listening to.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So thinking about those kind of things was really sort of key for me, you know. When we build things or create content, we want as many people to see and use these things as possible. So considering all the factors that may prevent people from using something in one way, I think that’s what it’s about.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah, I mean at GDS we’ve always considered that wherever there is a web browser people will try and use that to interact with government.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So right from the start, we saw people doing passport applications on their PlayStations. And we’ve seen…

 

Laura Stevens:

Really?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. So we’ve seen mobiles, you know are now more than 50% of traffic often. And so we, what we, you know accessibility is just one way to make sure that people can always use the services and the content that we provide. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah I think definitely what you’re saying about mobiles as well. Because I looked up Matt Hobbs, who’s the Head of Frontend Development at GDS, tweeted about the November 2019 GOV.UK stats, and mobile was over 50%. It was 52.86%. 

 

Rianna Fry:

Absolutely, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I guess part of this is also thinking like why is it particularly important that government is a leader in accessible services. Like what, why is that so important?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean as you said at the beginning, you know you don’t choose to use government, you have to use government. So you can’t go anywhere else. So it’s, it’s our obligation to make sure that, that everything is accessible to everyone. And it does have to be everyone, and especially those with disabilities, or needing to use assistive technology, tend to have to interact with government more. 

 

So we do have an obligation for that.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think if you think about it, these are public services. They’re online public services so they need to be able to use, be used by the public not exclusive groups. And I think that’s what it's all about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And sort of on that, or leading on from that, I wanted us to talk about GDS as leaders in digital accessibility. So at GDS, we’ve, we set up the cross-government accessibility community, the Head of Accessibility for government sits at GDS and as mentioned, it’s one of our design principles. So we want to design for everyone. 

 

And from your work here at GDS, do you have any sort of examples of where GDS has led in accessibility? So for instance you were talking there about assistive technology, and I know that GOV.UK, there’s a lot of work done on GOV.UK to make sure that it works with assistive technology.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes, I mean especially as sort of the standards for accessibility have changed over the last 7, 8 years that GDS has existed. We’ve always made sure that our code works on everything and for all assistive technology. And also we’ve made you know, now with the [GOV.UK] Design System made it possible for the, all services in government to take that and so they don’t have to do the work as well. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

So how can people use the Design System, if they’re listening and they don’t quite know what the Design System is. Can you explain it a bit please?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So I mean if you go to the GOV.UK Design System site, it provides basically all the code you need to make something look and feel like GOV.UK. You know we’ve always said that GOV.UK is a single domain for government, and that services in central government should look and feel like GOV.UK and be linked from GOV.UK.

 

And if you use our code, it means you get all the usability and accessibility benefits that we’ve spent a lot of time and effort to make sure work really well. And you get that basically for free. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, and it’s also I guess you’re sharing the, as you were just talking about, you’re sharing the hard work. So if you’re a smaller organisation or you don’t have that sort of technical capability, you’re saying it’s already there. We can, you can just go to the...

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes, we saw that every, basically every service in government was spending 6 months or more, you know writing code that’s basically the same.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

That’s why the Design System exists, and is so popular. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And have you seen any sort of examples of…

 

Rianna Fry: 

Well I think, I think you mentioned this near the beginning as well, the accessibility empathy lab.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So that’s sort of a space for people to really experience some of the impairments that people may have, and really put them in that space. And I think that really helps to bring things to life. Because it’s really easy to forget or not consider what some needs might be. And I’ve been along to some of the tours there and it’s, it’s great to see people in all different roles coming from all different kinds of organisations sort of using the different personas that are in that lab, to think differently about how web pages should be built.

 

And also even you know, the words that we use. And I think that sort of in line with what Chris was saying, there’s also the, the style guide. Because we often forget as a communicator, plain English is really important, that’s like a basic thing.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

That most people know about and practice, but don’t necessarily consider as part of accessibility. And I know when I worked at the council we used the GOV.UK Style Guide as like the basis because we knew that there was a lot of research and it’s ongoing.

 

And also like as Chris said, you know it’s not just people within GDS that inform this work. It’s across government and also some of the wider public sector. There’s great communities that are sharing really great work in this space, and that all feeds in. 

 

Laura Stevens:

No I think that’s really interesting as well what you’re saying because you came from a local government background into central government. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you were able to use some of those sort of GDS or cross-government tools, and you were able to pick them up and use them. That’s really good.

 

Rianna Fry:

Yeah, absolutely yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And, and you mentioned there that a lot of the work in accessibility it’s not, it’s not, even though a lot of it sits at GDS, it’s contributed to by people across the accessibility community across government. 

 

We’ve got a cross-government accessibility community, which has more than 1,200 people in the Google group. And are you involved in the community Chris or?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Well I’m on the email..

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

And I will, and I respond to questions about the accessibility monitoring. Yeah, I mean it’s I think, because accessibility cuts across so many different jobs in government, so it isn’t just the people that, that do accessibility auditing day in and day out and,but we now have those across government. 

 

But you know, all frontend developers, all designers, all user researchers tend to need to know something about accessibility, and have questions and even though they’re not you know, full time professionals in this, the community’s there to help everyone understand what we’re looking for and how to consider accessibility in everything they do.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And do you think that’s sort of been a shift because Rianna was mentioning like how in the lab, you get people of all different job titles in, and that’s sort of shift in making accessibility part of everyone’s job, not just people who have accessibility in their job title. Like neither of you 2 have accessibility in job title for instance.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. I mean I think that’s been a big change like it was with design before and user research. It isn’t just a separate specialist, even though we need the specialists to you know, do the work.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah yeah, of course.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

It’s something that everyone has to consider as they do their job. So especially like frontend developers, we expect them to be testing their code for accessibility at, just as they are doing it. Which means that when they do do an audit and a specialist comes in and looks at the site, there shouldn’t be any surprises.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think that’s one of the, so Richard Morton, who’s the Interim Head of Accessibility across government, that’s one of the things that he says, is that actually the ambition for his role is that there won’t, in the future, need to be specialists necessarily because everybody has a, a level of understanding about it. 

 

Obviously that’s a long way off.  

 

Laura Stevens: 

And also I guess he doesn’t want to talk himself out of a job.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah! Exact--and that I mean, he does follow it up with that.

 

But I think, I think that’s what’s really nice about the community is that you have got people, so for example the designer that I’ve worked on, Charlotte, with the campaign for accessibility. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Is this Charlotte Downs?

 

Rianna Fry: 

Charlotte Downs, yeah. So since she’s been working that, she’s just sort of, her mind has been blown by all this information that’s out there. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And she’s now a go to person with GDS for design - accessible design - particularly around PDFs. And I think that’s the thing, sort of as you sort of get into it, it’s really easy to become really passionate about accessibility because it’s all about doing the right thing. And I think particularly within GDS, and actually most digital based roles I would say, it’s all about users. And accessibility, that’s what it’s all about. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

I’ve heard people refer to the PDF mountain in government. What does that mean and why is that related to accessibility?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean right from the start of GOV.UK, we saw that central government alone was publishing pretty much everything as PDFs. And PDFs vary in quality and vary in accessibility as well. It is possible to make more accessible PDFs. But generally we’ve always said things should be webpages, content should be on webpages and in HTML. But, and in central government we’ve been moderately successful in that. There’s still a lot of PDFs being published but we’ve reduced that, and especially in services, they tend not to use PDFs anymore.

 

So I think legislation is a good time for, for all public sector organisations to reflect on that and see how they can change some of their processes and how they publish information.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So changing a mountain into a molehill.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. I mean we, I think you know there will always be some PDFs for certain reasons but the number of PDFs being published should go down.

 

Rianna Fry: 

So just thinking about stuff like that, as Chris says, changing processes. Is there a reason why we have to have this as a PDF format, why can’t it be HTML? I mean it, the campaign, it, it was the same you know. 

 

How do we make the supporter pack in HTML, it doesn’t look as pretty, which for creative people might be something, like a bone of contention, but ultimately we want people to be able to use it. So creating things and making things available in different formats if you have to have a PDF, is the right thing to do. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah and I think that’s sort of interesting as well with the creative side of things. Because obviously as government though you need to make it’s as accessible as possible and I think GOV.UK has won design awards so it shows that like, accessibility doesn’t mean that like design goes out the window, not at all. Like I think it was Fast Company put us at the top 10 designs of the decades in the 2010s. So..

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah I mean even when we won the Design Museum's Design of the Year award.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

You know we were on, we were called boring.com the next day. But you know we have a lot of designers working here in GDS, and there is an awful lot of design built into it even though it may look a bit plainer than other websites. But that’s because we’re totally focussed on usability and accessibility.

 

Rianna Fry: 

There’s no point having a beautiful website if no-one can use it

 

Laura Stevens: 

I would just sort of, what I would like to sort of talk about is how accessible services help everyone. 

 

For instance we have GOV.UK content that’s now accessible via voice assistance. So I think there’s now more than 13,000 pieces of GOV.UK content that’s available via Google Home or Amazon Alexa. And why is that good for people, like why, why is that good having these sort of pieces anyone can access via voice?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean there’s a lot of people that can’t use a standard computer and a standard web browser. I mean and that, that ranges from having disabilities through to just not understanding how a computer works and not wanting to understand how a computer works.

 

So being able to access government information if not services yet, just through voice I think is, is really important.

 

Rianna Fry: 

I was just going to say, personally as well, so a, a relative of mine recently was unwell and lost his sight. And he has an Alexa and so although it was still a difficult transition for him, him still being able to access things as soon as he got home really helped. 

 

Laura Stevens:
Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

And I think you know like Chris said, not everyone wants to use a computer as well.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Or if you’re sort of busy and out and about, sort of that situational side of things, it just makes things more accessible and more available for people, which is great. It’s easier right?

 

Laura Stevens: 

Chris, you alluded to this earlier that the sort of regulations have changed since GDS begun. And while accessibility has always been part of GDS’ work, there are new regulations that have come in quite recently, and these regulations mean public sector organisations have a legal duty to make sure their websites and apps meet accessibility requirements. 

 

And can you tell me a bit about them and sort of, what the key dates are with that and…

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So this is a European-wide initiative that started in 2016. It’s now UK law. And any new websites that a public sector body makes, that's certainly in public, needs to be accessible now. And they should also publish something called an accessibility statement on their website that says how accessible they are and how to get in contact with them if you find any issues with them.

 

But then the big deadline is 23 September 2020, when all public sector websites, old and new, need to be accessible.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how is this related to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, which I called WCAG, but is that the correct way of pronouncing…

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens: 

...that acronym? So yeah, the web--oh sorry.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So WCAG is a W3C [World Wide Web Consortium] standard about web content accessibility. And it’s been updated pretty recently to version 2.1. And the standard that the legislation and we require is something called double A. So there are 3, 3 levels of accessibility mentioned in the guidelines - A, double A and triple A. 

 

And double A means that there should not be any major blockers to anyone being able to use the website. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Will the regulations apply differently to different parts of the public sector, for instance central government or to schools or to healthcare? 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

There are some differences. The legislation makes some exemptions especially, there is partial exemptions for schools and nurseries. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Although the way it’s written, actually they’re not quite as exempt as you might think.

 

Laura Stevens: 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Because a lot of people are doing stuff online, and if the online is the only route to them that has to be accessible. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. 

 

Chris Heathcote: 

But generally the exemptions are, are quite small. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

I think what’s really important as well is that, I mean it’s this is sort of easy, easier for me to say I guess because I work in an organisation that really cares about accessibility and already has accessibility built in to a lot of the ways of working. But I think for me it’s sort of helpful to think about this as an opportunity. So I think this creates a really good excuse to educate people about why that’s important and also now that there’s law behind this...

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

that feeds into the Equality Act, and I mean that’s really important. If you’re going to pay to build a website, or spend a load of your time creating content, then you want to make sure that people can access that content or access that, access that service.

 

Why, why would you want to try and get around that? Because all you’re doing is reducing the amount of people that can access it. So I think you know, although I understand that sometimes there are reasons for that like time. I think this is about behaviour change, and also education, helping people to understand that. If you’re, if you’re opening your service up, you’re reducing costs that may be elsewhere because you’re making your website more efficient and work for people so that they can self-serve.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so do you think that’s why having an accessibility statement is a really good thing? Because you know how you’re saying this is a way of creating behaviour change. By the process of going through and creating accessibility statement, which is this statement on the website that says, this is why our service is accessible. And it also has to say, if I’m right, this isn’t accessible but this is how we’re working.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Absolutely.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah because GOV.UK has an accessibility statement, doesn’t it?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah. What we are trying to do is make sites accessible so pub--, so you know getting the information together and publishing an accessibility statement is a really good start to making sure that the website is accessible and remains as accessible as it changes. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

I was just going to say you know, I think that shows a commitment to making a change. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

I think it’s unrealistic to expect all websites overnight to be completely accessible, because some of this stuff involves a lot of legacy things.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And also PDFs, a lot of PDFs. But this, I, as I understand it, and I’m not an expert so Chris you might correct me on this, but that’s statements about saying you know, these areas aren’t right but this is our plan to fix them. And if you can’t access information here’s who you need to contact to get that. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yes. And that's an important part, you have that contact.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Absolutely, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

A name or an email address that you can go forward to.

 

And this actually leads me nicely on, because this was, we chose accessibility in January because there was a loose news hook for the podcast that January is when enforcement and reporting will begin. And this is quite a big job to undertake so Chris could you kind of talk to me about this next bit of your role?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah so to make sure that people are taking the legislation seriously, in each country in Europe, so it’s not just the UK, there is a monitoring body set up. In the UK it was decided that GDS would host that. And that’s the team I’m setting up at the moment. 

 

So we have an obligation in, in the legislation as well. So we will be monitoring a number of public sector websites. It’s about...by 2023, it’ll be about 2,000 websites a year.

 

And what we do is most of that will be automated checking using automated accessibility checkers. But we know that that only covers 30 to 40% of accessibility issues and WCAG points. So we’ll be doing a bit of manual checking as well and, and for a certain amount of websites, we have to do a sort of fuller audit that’s more like a traditional accessibility audit.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And this is done on behalf of the Minister for Cabinet Office isn’t it?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. So yeah, they’re the person that's mentioned in the legislation. And yes, we’ll be reporting to them about what we find.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And when you go through these websites, how do you get back in touch with them, do you create an accessibility report, how does that work?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So, so what we’re going to do is from the testing that we do, we’ll write a report. We’ll send that to the public sector organisation and start a conversation with them really about do they understand the report, do they see the same issues that we’re seeing, and what they’re going to do to fix them.

 

And hopefully that’s a constructive conversation and we can provide technical support where needed.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, and would you also I guess point to some of the stuff on GOV.UK? There’s accessibility guidance there as well. Would you be using that?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yeah absolutely. I mean, I mean both, both the stuff that we publish for central government like the Design System and the Service Manual. But also you know we are looking also for resources around the W3C publish and things like training that, that are starting to happen that we can point people to so that you know, they, they can fix the issues as quickly as possible.

 

Laura Stevens: 

Say if a website has been found with accessibility issues, what would be a way of enforcing the findings of a report?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

So we’re working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission in England, Wales and Scotland, and for Northern Ireland it’s the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. They are actually doing the enforcing on accessibility because it, it, falls under the Equality Act, so they’ve been enforcing accessibility for, for a while. And so that’s their role.

 

However we will be enforcing whether they, the sites have accessibility statements or not because that’s an additional thing on top of the Equality Act.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So you’re gonna be very busy over the next year and onwards from there.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Yes. I mean it’s never ending. Yes we’re recruiting at the moment - the Audit Team. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Are you giving a plug on the podcast if anyone’s listening and they want to apply?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Well we will, we, we’ll certainly have some roles opening over the next year.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And how will you find this sample of websites, or do we not know this yet?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

We’ve spent quite a while coming up with a list of what is the public sector and what isn’t. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

And also what websites they have. There’s another team in GDS called the Domain Management Team, who have also been trying to look at what websites government runs, and what the public sector runs. And they’re more tasked with making sure that the domains remain secure and are being used properly. 

 

But you know this list hasn’t existed before. So we’ve also approached it, we’ve crea--we’ve gathered lots of open data that government publishes around public sector organisations. And we’re using that to create a sort of master list of the public sector that we will then sample against. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Rianna you actually mentioned this earlier, and I know you’ve joined GDS relatively recently in the summer of last year. And sometimes I think accessibility can be landed on a person, one person in an organisation, and that it can feel quite overwhelming when suddenly there are regulations that people need to, and they need to learn a lot of knowledge quite quickly, how did you find that when you joined and you were given the accessibility campaign to manage? When you had to learn all this information, what did you find that was helpful or how did you find that process?

 

Rianna Fry: 

Well I think I’ve been really lucky in that I was surrounded by experts at GDS.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And also there is so much information on GOV.UK. And I mean, that’s not a plug, it’s true. And so like I said before, Charlotte Downs for example, she, when she, when we started working on this together she did a load of research on different things.

 

Because I mean, even once you know it, even once you’ve been through some training on how to create an accessible document. When you’re knocking together a document, it’s really easy to forget. Like I said, it’s behaviour change. So I think it’s about checking in with other people and asking other people to just check over content.

 

You know I remember when I first started working on this project and I sent out a survey and I made an assumption that it was accessible and it wasn’t. And that was..

 

Laura Stevens: 

And it was a survey about accessibility?

 

Rianna Fry:

It was, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Oh, yeah.

 

Rianna Fry:

I mean it was a steep learning curve. Thankfully it was only live for about 2 minutes before I noticed.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And me and Richard [Morton] then worked together on some stuff, but I think that’s what it’s about, it’s about asking people to check in. And you know things aren’t always going to be perfect but that’s why it helps to be part of communities so that you’ve kind of got constructive friends

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Rianna Fry: 

that can give you constructive feedback on how you can improve what you're doing. So I think, yeah it’s about seeing what’s out there and speaking to people and asking people to, for feedback on what you’re doing. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And I know we mentioned before the communities are very active, the blog posts are very active, but also so you’re running the campaign for accessibility, we’ve had 75,000 visits to the GOV.UK guidance since August 2019. And you’ve also created a campaigns pack, and is that for people, who who’s that for?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So that’s for supporters. So for us, as Chris said this is a massive job, there are so many organisations that need to know about this. And the people that are potentially responsible for managing a public sector website aren’t necessarily in digital roles. They’re not necessarily people that GDS are talking to or aware of. 

 

So if you think about things like GP surgeries for example, they fall into the remit of public sector. Now my GP surgery definitely doesn’t have a digital team. So the, the point of the supporter pack is to try and get especially central government teams onboard, their engagement and communications teams on board and talking to people about the regulations.

 

So we’re trying to make it easier by bringing that information into one place, which is all the point of the campaign page. So we’ve tried to break it down into 4 steps. So signposting people to guidance that will help them to understand whether or not they’re going to be impacted. Believe it or not, some people aren’t sure whether or not they’re classed as a public sector organisation.

 

Then secondly deciding how to check the accessibility of their websites. Then making a plan to fix any problems and lastly publishing an accessibility statement, which really summarises the findings and the plans to fix any issues. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And you’re saying there that this is all in one place, where is that place?

 

Rianna Fry: 

So it’s on GOV.UK/accessibility-regulations.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So if, so if I’m from the public sector I can go there and just…

 

Rianna Fry:

Absolutely. Yeah, it’s an open web...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Rianna Fry: 

...webpage. And I’m, I mean my information’s on the supporter pack so if there are any campaign people out there that want to talk to me, then I’m more than happy to share any additional resources that we’ve got, that we’re using internally and whatever else.

 

Laura Stevens: 

And do you have any sort of top tips, or from your work you’ve done in sort of starting this work on accessibility. Are there any sort of things where you’ve spoken to other organisations, you’ve been like oh that’s a good thing to share. Any best practice or anything like that?

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean I think that, that it isn’t just all..it isn’t just a single thing that people need to do. You know we understand that people have websites and they might need to retrofit some accessibility onto that but it is really about changing processes. 

 

So especially when we talk to people like local authorities, the number of people that publish on the website is quite large and it’s educating them to know how to make good PDFs, how to write well, how to, how generally how accessibility of content works. And making sure there’s a process to make sure that that happens. That needs to be in place as much as actually fixing the website and the technical aspects of accessibility.

 

Rianna Fry: 

And I think education is really important. So I think what helps is to tell, help colleagues across organisations to understand why they need to do certain things. 

 

And I think it helps that people, people have an awareness of the Equality Act, and understand when something is law. So I think that helps and I would say to try and use that to, yeah really educate people and try and get people on board internally.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So as a closing segment I thought it might be nice to ask both of you if there’s something in particular that motivates you to work in accessibility, or if there’s something you’ve come across in your work that’s made a real impact on you, and sort of galvanised you to keep going on this.

 

Chris Heathcote: 

I mean I think we, what we see is when we talk to users, and we talk to users all the time, is it gives people independence. People can do things for themselves, they can self-serve, they can see the content on GOV.UK. And it’s, it’s something that they’ve you know, moving digitally has actually changed people’s lives. 

 

Rianna Fry: 

Yeah, I think I’d echo that you know. And it’s important that organisations know about the regulations. So supporting those really hard working digital colleagues that spend a load of time researching what, what works for users, and a load of time trying to tell other people how to, you know why PDFs shouldn’t be used. 

 

So I think for me, that’s really important. And also just you know that lightbulb, seeing that lightbulb moment of people going ‘oh god, yeah we really should be doing this and being able to signpost them to the tools to be able to kind of put it into action.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So thank you to Rianna and thank you to Chris for coming on the podcast today. I hope you’ve enjoyed being on the GDS podcast, a first for both of you.

 

Chris Heathcote:

Yeah. Thanks for having us. 

 

Rianna Fry:

Yeah. Thanks for having us. And thank you for choosing accessibility to be your first podcast of the decade. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Well I do.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Not just the year, the decade! I mean it feels like it’s really significant. This is going to be a podcast that people remember. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

And so yeah, you can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And the transcripts are available on Podbean. 

 

So thank you both again, and goodbye!

 

Chris Heathcote: 

Bye.

 

Rianna Fry: 

Thanks!

Government Digital Service Podcast #14: GDS Quiz 2019

Government Digital Service Podcast #14: GDS Quiz 2019

December 30, 2019

Sarah Stewart:

Hello and welcome to the GDS Podcast. I’m Sarah Stewart. Today’s podcast, the final one of 2019, is a special one, it’s GDS’s Year in Review. Last year, Angus and I went through the year very methodically picking out our highlights. It was quite fun. It’s my last podcast, so I wanted to do something better than quite fun. And what’s better than quite fun? A quiz! I’m going to host a quiz!

 

So I’m going to be asking 24 questions about GDS, 2 for each month. Obviously, the person with the most points will win. Producer Emily is going to keep score. So let’s meet our contestants.

 

Contestant number one, what’s your name, what do you do and where are you from?

 

Laura Stevens:

So my name is Laura Stevens. I’m a writer here at GDS. And I’m from a small village in Surrey called Tadworth.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What’s Tadworth known for?

 

Laura Stevens:

So it’s not known for very much, so I had to look this up before I came on the podcast. But it was referenced in the ‘Doomsday Book’ so it’s very old. In the ‘Doomsday Book’ it was known as having woodland worth 4 hogs. So you know, I don’t really know like what --

 

Sarah Stewart:

What a sum! 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, like I don’t really know what that equates to but I thought it was quite a fun fact.

 

Sarah Stewart:

You don’t see hogs very much anymore.

 

Angus Montgomery:

How many trees per hog?

 

Sarah Stewart:

And what kind of tree?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, and what kind of hog? I mean...

 

Angus Montgomery:

All good questions.

 

Sarah Stewart:

And Laura, what is your specialist subject at GDS would you say?

 

Laura Stevens:

So I would say my specialist subject would be design here at GDS. But I am wary of saying that because I know that Angus is also very into design and I feel like he may you know, show me up in this quiz and take all the design answers. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Which is a good segue into asking contestant number two, what’s your name and where do you come from?

 

Angus Montgomery:

Hello. I’m Angus Montgomery. I’m a Strategy Advisor and I live in Woodbridge in Suffolk. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Woodbridge. Isn’t that where the celebrities live? 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah. Well, it depends on your definition of celebrity, I suppose. So Woodbridge’s most famous son was Thomas Seckford, who was an advisor to Elizabeth I. More contemporary famous sons include Brian Eno and Charlie from Busted.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh my gosh. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Is Charlie the one with the eyebrows?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I think so, yeah. The handsome one. He did a solo career.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. Fightstar.

 

Angus Montgomery:

That’s it, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s excellent Busted knowledge.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So Angus, what’s your specialist subject at GDS?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I don’t know, it sounds a bit creepy if I’m going to say it out loud but the people at GDS. Like I think that’s the thing that I’m most interested in, is all the people who work here and the things that they do.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So it’s good to meet you contestants. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Good to be here.

 

Sarah Stewart:

I need you to press the buzzer when you have the correct answer. 

 

Cue the tense intro music Emily, Producer Emily. Let’s do this. 

 

In January, we recorded a podcast with the Global Digital Marketplace team. They are helping to tackle corruption – a $2.6 trillion problem. The team visited 5 countries, talking to people at state and local level. Can you name all 5 countries? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Okay. I think I’ve got this: South Africa, Malaysia, Colombia, Indonesia… I’m going to fall down on the last one!

 

Angus Montgomery:

I think I know the last one.

 

Laura Stevens:

What’s the last one? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

No no no no, we can’t do that. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh so do I just..?

 

Sarah Stewart:

You’re compromising the integrity of the quiz. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Do I get a hint or do I just…?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Here’s your clue. Its name also features in the name of its capital city. Massive clue...

 

The answer was Mexico.

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s really annoying.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Mexico City. Okay. So, I’m afraid no one can take a point from that. 

 

Okay, next question. The first ever Services Week took place from 28th January to 1st February. It was a nationwide, cross-government event that explored how people could work together to deliver end-to-end user-focused services. Now, one of the workshops during Services Week was designed to improve online forms. It was a sell-out workshop but what was the name of that workshop? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Was it called Formapalooza? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct! One point to Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Boom.

 

Laura Stevens:

First one on the scoreboard, you know. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay, moving onto February now. In February, the GDS Academy turned 5 and launched a new course – Introduction to Artificial Intelligence [AI] in Government. Can you name an example of where AI is already being used in government? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Aren’t we using it here at GDS to do supervised machine learning on GOV.UK?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Excellent, Laura. One point.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Back in the game.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Next question. GovWifi is a common component that we all know and love. It provides free, secure wifi in public sector buildings. It’s used 2 million times a month. We noticed that it was also being accessed through which surprising device?

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it a device you would find in a home?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes, perhaps in the home of a teenager.

 

Laura Stevens:

PlayStation.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct answer. And actually, there were 6 PlayStations that were recorded.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Who’s brought a PlayStation in?

 

Sarah Stewart:

I don’t know. It could be in any public sector building. 

 

Next question. The 11th competition for the GovTech Catalyst opened in March. Technology firms were invited to apply to develop innovative solutions for a challenge submitted by Oxfordshire County Council but what was that challenge?

 

Laura Stevens:

Was it something to do with the traffic system? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

And driverless cars..?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes! Yes! Well done. Next question.

 

A team, a new team was created for GOV.UK to maintain and operate the GOV.UK platform. What was the new team called? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it the Platform Health team? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct.

 

Sprint is GDS’s flagship conference. In April, we announced the agenda and that we would travel to 5 locations across the UK to discuss the impact of digital transformation on public services. Name those cities. Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

In order: Edinburgh, Cardiff, Leeds, Belfast and London. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

One point to Angus. I almost said Laura then.

 

Laura Stevens:

Give me all the points. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Shall we have a check in on the scores?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah, let’s check in on the scores. Wow. Okay. Laura’s ahead. 

 

In April, there was an Unconference at GDS. People were invited to pitch and present on topics of their choosing. Richard Towers held a discussion on making coding more accessible to people at GDS. Which of the following is a programming language that we do not use at GDS? Ruby, Python, Node.js, Go, Java, C#, Scala. Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

C#?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

Did you know that?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I don’t know that much about programming languages. But I’ve heard people talking about the other ones.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay. Well just to say, there was a trick answer in there as well. So for those people who really know their programming, we don’t use Scala anymore but there is an old project that’s still is in Scala but it’s not maintained. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Ooh I like that, a trick question.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay so this is May. GOV.UK Pay – a free and secure online payment service for government and public sector organisations – took its first payment for a service in a language other than English. For half a point, what was that language? And, for the full point, how do you say seamless integration in that language? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Welsh. I’m just going for the half point. I don’t, I don’t have the other half of it. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Not confident?

 

Laura Stevens:

I’m not confident. I’ve never spoken Welsh so I wouldn’t want to offend anybody. Do you have, do you know it?

 

Angus Montgomery:

No.

 

Laura Stevens:

I don’t know. You knew about programming languages, so I thought you might also have-

 

Angus Montgomery:

Welsh knowledge? 

 

Laura:

Yeah, Welsh knowledge..

 

Angus Montgomery:

The two don’t always go together. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay. Well, I’ve got it written down here and I don’t want to offend anyone either. It’s been quite a good year for common components, has it not?

 

Angus Montgomery:

It has. So, I mean, as well as GOV.UK Pay, you’ve got GOV.UK Notify, which is a great success and is used by more than half the local authorities across the UK.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. It helps them do things like sending letters, which can be really time-consuming and where mistakes can be made.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Okay. With changing regulations affecting public sector accessibility requirements, we advised how to publish an accessibility statement but where can you find that? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

GOV.UK.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes! In June, we’re halfway through.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah!

 

Sarah Stewart:

How fun. 

 

In June, a strategy and a guide were published. What was the name of that strategy and what was the name of the guide? I need the official names, please. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I think the first one is the Government Technology Innovation Strategy then it’s ‘A Guide to Using AI in the Public Sector’?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Laura has got the full point. 

 

In June, Kevin Cunnington, GDS’s Director General stepped down after 3 years leading the organisation. He took a new role on, at the International Government Service, and Alison Pritchard was named as Interim DG [Director General]. Can you tell me where in the world she was when she was offered the job? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

I think she was near Madagascar, wasn’t she, in the Indian Ocean?

 

Sarah Stewart:

I...I don’t think I can accept that.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh. She was on a boat in in, at sea. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

And well it...I’m going to accept Indian Ocean because she was sailing on a boat somewhere between Darwin and Christmas Island. So I would have accepted Timor Sea or the Indian Ocean. 

 

Okay, so technically this happened in June, July was a little bit quiet. 

 

So GDS’s step by step work on GOV.UK won a D&AD Award for Service Design. Please can you name my favourite step by step journey on GOV.UK? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Is it Reporting Found Treasure?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

I mean, even if I’d got in first, I would have actually been wrong. I thought it was actually Bring Your Pet to the UK.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Where would I be bringing it from?

 

Laura Stevens:

I don’t know. You might have bought your pet abroad.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh yeah. I actually did look into dog rescue in Greece.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you know, clearly I could have been right. But alas, it was more finding treasure.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So what’s so good about step by step?

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, there are now 47 live, and obviously, it’s really good that they are winning awards and everything but also they’re being, they’re really helping people. They are also helping the other parts of GOV.UK like our voice assistant work. So now you can ask your Alexa or Google Home if you want to learn to drive a car. And yeah, it's helping people where they need it.

 

And it’s quite like, when I spoke to Kate [Ivey-Williams] and Sam [Dub] about it, Kate was saying what motivated her is that ease to make government like, as invisible as possible. So say you’re dealing with a very distressing situation, like somebody has passed away, you don’t want to be like dealing with any government admin at that point. And so if the step by step can just give you the answers that you need and tell you very clearly, that’s a really helpful thing to do for users.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What is your favourite step by step journey, Laura?

 

Laura Stevens:

My favourite step by step journey is quite a boring one but I like it because I’m on the video for it. It’s How to Drive a Car. I feature saying it into a phone. Then it got screened at Sprint 18.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Wow.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you know, me in this jumper, it’s quite an old jumper. I didn’t really expect to be used in filming that day. It’s been immortalised.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So if you want to have a visual picture of Laura, if you want to connect the voice to the face, watch that journey. It’s on YouTube.

 

In July we released, oh this is, actually, this next question could be in Laura’s advantage, just given your specialist subject for design. In July, we released new updates to the colours and font on GOV.UK. The GOV.UK colour palette is made up of 7 colours – grey, black, blue, red, yellow, green and white. Which 2 colours weren’t updated? Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Black and white?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

That is great knowledge.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Angus is in the lead.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yes! 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Wow.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh so I need to make a comeback?

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah, Laura needs to make a comeback.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that because he’s got lots of half points? Trying hard but...

 

Sarah Stewart:

He’s not committing.

 

Angus Montgomery:

What’s that meant to mean?

 

Sarah Stewart:

In August we talked about work we had to do following July’s reshuffle. When there is a reshuffle, GOV.UK needs to update the information as quickly as possible. True or false – the GOV.UK team knows this information before the public?

 

Laura Stevens:

False.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. They find out at the same time as everyone else. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah July...during the reshuffle in July, because it was quite like a big change and the changes were coming quite like quickly, the team really had to step up. And so that’s working late nights, making sure that GOV.UK is always like the canonical source of information.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So they had to make updates to 100 individual ministers’ GOV.UK roles. They had to update ministers’ biographies. They had to add profiles to GOV.UK for people who hadn’t worked for Government before. They had to reorder the list of ministers on 22 department pages. And they had to reorder the Government Ministers page. And obviously there’s a lot of eyes on GDS, well on GOV.UK and GDS’s team, GDS’s work through that. So yeah, they did really well.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Go team. Ok, next question.

 

Alison took up the role of DG [Director General] at GDS and wrote an introductory blog post sharing a little bit about her past. It’s incredibly well written. Alison has a fantastic background in public service but what was her very first job serving the public?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I feel like I know this.

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was in the blog post, if you read it. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

I don’t know if it was her very first job but she was Minister Responsible for Cage Fighting at one stage, wasn’t she? 

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s quite a high entry as your first job. Minister for Cage Fighting. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Not Minister, obviously. She was a senior civil servant responsible for cage fighting in some capacity. 

 

Laura Stevens:

She was pulling pints…?

 

Sarah Stewart:

You can’t give them clues. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

I thought you said first job in the civil service. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

No. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh, first job.

 

Laura Stevens:

No. It was first job serving the public. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh so serving the public.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this a pun?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh!

 

Angus Montgomery:

You’re operating on a level that I’m not!

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes! She was a barmaid when she was eight. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh. Is that...

 

Angus Montgomery:

Is that legal? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Do we need to check in on that? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was…

 

Angus Montgomery:

Do we need to check on the legality of that claim?

 

Laura Stevens:

You need to investigate some pub wherever she grew up.

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was her family pub and she just served soft drinks.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Ok, so September. Plans for a new permanent secretary level Government Chief Digital Information Officer (GCDIO) were announced at Sprint. Alison said that GCDIO was a bit of a mouthful, so what was the title shortened to? Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

She calls them ‘The Big G’. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Adding that it incorporates a sense of scale and seniority for that particular post. 

 

Mark Hurrell, the former Head of Design for GOV.UK and the Head of Graphic Design at GDS wrote the most popular blog post in Design in Government blog history. What was it about? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

So I feel like I need to claw this back after Angus took my specialist subject earlier. Is it the post about the design principles posters?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Yes, well done.

 

Laura Stevens:

There was also a very nice… we can plug the Instagram here as well, because I believe Roger Valentine did a very nice animation about those posts as well.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Great. In October, 2 members of the Sustainability Network – Emily Labram and Will Pearson – estimated the maximum amount of CO2 that GDS produces. How many tonnes of CO2 did they estimate we produced? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Was it 4,000?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct!

 

Laura Stevens:

Ah! That’s so much.

 

Sarah Stewart:

That’s a lot but it’s an important piece of work. It’s good to know exactly what your impact is.

 

Laura Stevens:

And is it on the blog post?

 

Sarah Stewart:

It is. All of the details are on the blog post and how they calculated it as well.

 

Angus Montgomery:

And where does that come from, the CO2?

 

Sarah Stewart:

It’s things like data centres that are consuming lots of energy. Like and whether that energy is, I mean the question is whether you can have renewable energy sources to keep things like data centres up and running and...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah and I think also, that blog post got a lot of comments, as well. So I think it’s something that other government departments or like arm’s length bodies, or whatever are looking into.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah cause you, yeah, I guess you think that the big culprits are fashion, oil and gas industries. Actually, everyone is sort of-

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, everyone is responsible. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yes.

In October, GOV.UK turned 7. Tell me, what was notable about the desks that the team worked on when GOV.UK was launched? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this from an article you wrote? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Me? Or Secretary of State?

 

Laura Stevens:

Sorry, sorry, the ghostwriting that doesn’t exist.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah, yeah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it that they were cardboard boxes?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct. Thank you for reading that by the way.

 

I’m going to read a quote from a GDS figure. Please can you identify the speaker, their job title and tell me what they are talking about. The quote starts, “Unlike many publishers or commercial organisations, we’re not incentivised by statistics like page views or the number of visitors. Our interest is in making sure we are where the user is,” end quote. Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

That is Jen Allum, who is Head of GOV.UK, talking about, well I guess the sort of success metrics for GOV.UK. And it’s interesting what she’s saying about that, that obviously we’re not a commercial organisation, we’re an organisation that’s here to serve user needs. So the traditional kind of understanding of people, you know you want to increase the number of people coming to your site, like that’s not how we operate.

 

I mean it’s good to know those figures obviously. And it’s good to know who’s coming and what they are looking at and what’s getting a lot of traffic and stuff. But that’s not ultimately what motivates people and that’s not what motivates their future vision for GOV.UK, which is about serving users, helping them to do whatever it is that they need to do, regardless of whether that’s a simple thing or a complex life event.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Perfect answer. One point.

 

November saw the creation of another community at GDS. GDS has got so many lovely communities. What was that community? Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Was it Muslims at GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart:

Correct! Networks are a nice thing, aren’t they?

 

Laura Stevens:

They are.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What’s your favourite network? What networks are you part of?

 

Laura Stevens:

So at GDS I’m part of the Women’s Network. I’ve also recently joined the Mental Health Network because I interviewed Ben on the podcast, Ben Carpenter on the podcast last month. What about you Angus?

 

Angus Montgomery:

I’m not a member, although I probably ought to be. But I go to quite a lot of the Women’s Network events, which are really good. I think it’s great obviously not being a woman and being able to go to these things and being part of that community.

 

But no, I think the good thing about the networks is, even if you are not a member, they are really visible so I’ve been to quite a few events that the LGBT Network have done as well. I just think it’s really good that, yeah they’re so active and there is so much going on.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, I think that part about being open to all is really nice. Because often you can just join them by joining the Slack channel, and that’s very, you can just be there. So if you’re joining GDS as a person who’s not been in government before or anything, you can just be like, “here’s a few friendly faces” and you don’t have to...you can be kind of as active or as inactive as you want to be as part of the network. 

 

So what networks are you part of?

 

Sarah Stewart:

I dip my toes into a few pools. Does that work? I mean not physiologically. Metaphorically. I’m really interested in the work that the Women’s Group do, particularly around negotiating pay rises and public speaking. But also the Mental Health Network is really valuable because it’s such an everyday thing here. Well it’s becoming more of an everyday thing here to talk about how you are feeling. And I think that in other organisations, that’s not the case. I think there is a real push to normalise talking about it, which is ultimately very healthy.

 

Laura Stevens:

And it’s really nice that GDS can take like a leading role in that then, in setting a precedent on how that’s a good thing.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah. Okay, we’ve only got 2 questions left. We’re almost at the end. So can you tell me how many types of chocolate were tried by GDS Chocolate Club in 2019? And I should add that GDS Chocolate Club is funded by its members and is an out of hours club. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

6.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

I’m going to go much higher. I’m going to go like 24. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Well you’ve both fallen short. 65 chocolates were tasted in 2019.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Woah. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this the final question?

 

Sarah Stewart:

This is the final question of the quiz. Name every person in the Creative Team who made the GDS Podcast series possible this year.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Laura.

 

Laura Stevens:

Angus. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Sarah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

Producer Emily.

 

Angus Montgomery:

To give her her full title. Animator and photographer, Roger. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And we’ve got filmmaker Graham. Producer Megan Painter.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

Designer Charlotte.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Couldn’t possibly forget Alastair Mogford, who not only set up this podcast but documented how we do it and wrote down a very long description which we’ve all been using now because we all forget like what the set-up is and stuff. So thank you, Alastair.

 

Laura Stevens:

Shout out to Alastair. 

 

And also we’ve got to shoutout to our social media star, Lou Mullan. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

And thanks obviously to Chris Watson.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Oh wait. How do we attribute points to this? 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Everyone gets points for that.

 

Laura Stevens:

Because it’s a team effort. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yes.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Aw that’s nice. That’s the spirit, isn’t it?

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, well done team though, because we’ve done 14 podcasts! 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah!

 

Laura Stevens:

Thanks to everyone there. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

And thank you so much to all of our listeners for your loyal support over the past year.

 

Ok so Emily, can you tell us, can you hand me the final scores. I’m going to announce who the winner is-

 

Angus Montgomery:

Ah!

 

Laura Stevens:

Drumroll.

 

Sarah Stewart:

After I announce who the runner-up is. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh.

 

Sarah Stewart:

It was Angus.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yay!

 

Sarah Stewart:

Well done. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Well done Angus.

 

Sarah Stewart:

But today’s winner is Laura Stevens. So, your prize is 3 chocolate bars wrapped up inside a civil service lanyard. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh that’s very kind of you, thank you.

 

Sarah Stewart:

So claps for..

 

Laura Stevens:

Aww! Well, but there’s 3 so you know we can divide amongst…

 

Angus Montgomery:

Oh, well how convenient. Apart from Producer Emily.

 

Laura Stevens:

I tried to do that really nicely.

 

Angus Montgomery:

There, there are actually 4 of us in the room. 

 

Laura Stevens:

I will share that out amongst all of us here.

 

Sarah Stewart:

That’s very magnanimous of you. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Aww.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Aww, good winner. Ok so that brings us to the end of the last podcast of 2019. How did you think it went?

 

Angus Montgomery:

It was very challenging. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

It doesn’t sound...

 

Laura Stevens:

But I did come out as a winner, so I mean.. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

I feel like-

 

Angus Montgomery:

I mean obviously I came out as a runner up, so it was more challenging for me.

 

Sarah Stewart:

2019 has been quite a year, hasn’t it?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Uh huh.

 

Sarah Stewart:

What have your highlights been? 

 

Angus Montgomery:

Well I moved team. So I’m now on the Strategy Team, which explains why I’m not as involved in the podcasts as I was before. So yeah, that’s a highlight. But obviously being on the Creative Team was also a highlight. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Aww.

 

Sarah Stewart:

That’s sweet. Laura, what’s your highlight been? 

 

Laura Stevens:

I’ve really liked actually getting more involved in the podcasts, which is quite an appropriate thing to say in this podcast episode. 

 

Angus Montgomery:

On the podcast..

 

Laura Stevens:

But no I’ve spoken to really interesting people, like Kate Ivy-Williams and Sam Dub. Yeah, lots of other people as well, on the podcast. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Great. Okay. 

 

Laura Stevens:

But what about you? What was your highlights for the year? 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Well I helped Alison with the presentation that she delivered at the Women into Leadership Conference. And we made a spoof book about Alison. It’s called ‘Alison by Alison Pritchard’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart:

Because we were talking about like stories from her life and someone thought it was real.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes. I believe also, I’m quite surprised by this because you actually wrote in fake reviews, I believe. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

Yeah, I did reviews from ‘People’s Friend’ and ‘Time Magazine’. That was really funny, and it was a really good event as well. 

So thank you to all of our listeners over 2019. It’s been quite the year in the world of the GDS Podcast, we’ve covered lots of topics. So thank you for your loyal support and lending us your ears.

 

Laura Stevens:

And please keep listening. 

 

Sarah Stewart:

You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service Podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. You can read the transcripts on Podbean. Bye.

 

Angus Montgomery:

Bye.

 

Laura Stevens:

Bye 2019. 

Government Digital Service Podcast #13: Mental wellbeing at GDS

Government Digital Service Podcast #13: Mental wellbeing at GDS

November 27, 2019

Laura Stevens:

Hello and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re speaking about mental wellbeing at GDS. We’ve chosen to highlight this now as November is Men’s Mental Health Month. But we will be talking about mental health and wellbeing in the workplace more generally today. 

And to tell me more is Ben Carpenter. So please can you introduce yourself and what you do here at GDS, and your role in supporting mental wellbeing here.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Hello. Yeah, I’m Ben Carpenter. I’m Inclusive Services Lead in the Service Design and Assurances Programme. And I co-lead the Wellbeing Working Group, and I was, before we kind of rebranded as the Wellbeing Working Group, I was lead of the Mental Health Network.

 

Laura Stevens:

So can you tell me a bit about the GDS Mental Health Network and where it fits into the Wellbeing Group here at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well the Mental Health Network used to be kind of everything in the mental wellbeing space. Now that we’re expanding things to try and incorporate all aspects of wellbeing, physical and mental, the Mental Health Network in that name, really comprises basically of a Slack channel and a newsletter and of the people within the Slack channel.

 

That’s not to trivialise it ‘cause those things are really important, and a lot of work goes into those things, so the Q&As etc. But whereas we used to refer to GDS’s mental, GDS’s Mental Health Network as being all things mental wellbeing, I’d now say that’s more falls under the whole wellbeing banner.

 

Laura Stevens:

So, these Q&As. These are regular anonymous peer-led mental wellbeing Q&As on Slack. And can you describe some of the topics that come up? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

We organise those around topics that staff nominate and then vote for their preference. And so the topics can just vary all the time, from Imposter Syndrome to general anxiety to dealing with heavy workloads to dealing with a lack of a heavy workload, having had you know changes in, fluctuations in workload, that’s what you say. Bereavement and loss, you know, just the full range of emotional challenges. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how have you found people have responded to the Network?

 

Ben Carpenter:

So it’s not my day job at all. It’s like, it should be a fraction of my time and often it takes up a big fraction of my time. But it’s a funny area to work in and on, because it’s hard to get feedback on success. So the nature of the topic, the nature of the beast is, you might not hear from people even if something’s going really well.

 

A good example would be the Q&As that we hold on Slack each month. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So you have an anonymous route through, in those Q&As, to ask questions or answer questions. And you never know how many people are watching and reading, you never know how many people read the transcripts for information afterwards. So it can be very, it can be a very kind of quiet space to work in. You can, I sometimes think ‘oh god, is this work, is it worth it?’.

 

But when you do get feedback, it’s very very positive and. But yeah, it’s often hard to put something more tangible on that, to sort of prove value. 

 

Yeah. Yeah, it’s just, yeah. It’s hard to know exactly what is most valuable to users but I think it’s really…by users, I always talk about us. I talk about the Network as, and the Wellbeing Group, as a service and we should think of staff here as our users. Because I firmly believe we should be a user-centred service so…

 

Laura Stevens:

Sort of like doing the GDS principles in all aspects.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Absolutely, yeah. I mean this more than anything right, is a, if you’re going to try and help people with their wellbeing, you should be doing it in a way that you believe to be organised around what they need.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so yeah, a sort of more general question. Why, which might sound obvious but I think it’s good to ask it anyway, is why is it important to have a Mental Health Network and Wellbeing Group at all? What does it bring to the workplace?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I’m not sure. You tell me.

 

I mean so, that was a facetious question as in ‘you tell me’. Because I always think I want the GDS staff and colleagues to say why they appreciate the network’s efforts or presence.

 

But we know that people with healthy wellbeing are generally more productive in their work. So on a boring sort of corporate side, you know people work better. But we’re also a human-centred organisation, I think we are. I’m a human-centred person. So I take on this work because I care about people here. 

 

And so there’s no, to me there shouldn’t have to be any metric in terms of productivity or sort of value, ‘cause it’s just the right thing to do. I mean imagine, flip that round. Imagine a workplace where nobody thought, or took the time to organise around their staff’s wellbeing. 

 

Now that we’re doing this work and we have things like the ‘Time to Change’ pledges and commitments that we’ve made as an organisation, and we have a bunch of people in a working group saying, “hang on, lets try and provide things that the staff need to improve their wellbeing”, it seems perverse to everything, you wouldn’t do that.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you talk a bit about the ‘Time to Change’ pledge that you’ve mentioned?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I can a little bit.

 

Laura Stevens:

Ok.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yep, so Alison, Director General, signed the pledge last month or the month before. So Time to Change is a charity and they help organisations like us, companies, organisations to make a stack of commitments. 

 

So we’ve got 7 commitments under the Time to Change pledge. It covers things like, encouraging staff to be able to be frank about their mental health, training line managers to have conversations with staff about mental wellbeing, and broader wellbeing. 

 

All Senior Civil Servants here are going to undergo, go through some training on wellbeing awareness and support. Commitments in there as well around mental health first aid.

 

Laura Stevens:

I mean I was really interested when I was researching this to hear about the mental health first aiders. And when did they get brought in at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well so they, they exist in...some people brought those skills with them to GDS. Some people were able to go on mental health first aid training courses while they were here.

 

But what we’re doing at the moment is trying to organise that group of people, because again they’re just volunteers. These are not paid, there’s not a paid role, these are people who are volunteering to be mental health first aiders for their colleagues.

 

So what we’re trying to do is move away perhaps from a sort of set-up that we might have had before. It was like ‘oh, you know, that bloke over there happens to have been trained as a first aider, everyone go talk to him if they’re miserable’. And instead we’re trying to say ‘hang on, there are 800 staff here. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter: 

Right, how many mental health first aiders do we need to be able to look after, or provide that kind of support, to that number of staff?’. And what we’re aiming for is 1 in 50. So for every 50 members of staff, there’s a mental health first aider. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What are they qualified to do, what are they not qualified to do and why would you go to them?

 

Ben Carpenter:

They’re not practitioners. They are listeners, they’re confidential listeners and signposters. And as simple as that sounds, to do that in a robust and reliable way without yourself struggling too much perhaps with what you might be talking to people about, takes a couple of days training.

 

But yes, I think it’s really important to run that as a service, not as a thing that just happens. By which I mean, base it on what we believe that users need. Make sure it’s run in a sustainable way, you wouldn’t want to have 15 first aiders now and then you talk to me in a year, and we’ve suddenly only got 3. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So you’ve got to know how many we need, we’ve got to have funding for that, we’ve got to be constantly making sure that we’ve got volunteers to take on those roles if needed and so on. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how do you think, how long have you been at GDS?

 

Ben Carpenter:

2013...six years. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how have you seen support for mental health change since 2013?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Well...do you know when I was first here I probably wasn’t thinking about it very much. It was much more a sort of start-up feel, very whirlwind.

 

I’ve been more and more open about my own mental health as well in recent years. I mean I’ve always been pretty open about it, ‘cause I’ll talk to anyone about anything. But..

 

Laura Stevens:

That’s how you’re on this podcast.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right, right. But I think I’ve also more, proudly is the wrong word, less self-consciously happy to be known for having some mental health challenges while in the workplace with my colleagues. That was probably something I would have felt less comfortable doing even in the early days at GDS. And definitely at previous organisations that I’ve worked for. 

 

I would always have shared that sort of thing with line management or friends, but I don’t think I would have sat on a podcast saying, ‘I lead this network as best I can and I also have mental health challenges and occasionally, I’ll write about that on Slack or a blog post or something’. 

 

So that’s something that has changed for me but I wouldn’t...I think the signing of the ‘Time to Change’ pledge is a big deal for GDS. It’s a public statement under those 7 areas. And so in terms of policy, you know the mental health first aid commitments within that are, they’re really good and they’re really big.

 

So it’s up to us all to actually make sure they happen.

 

Laura Stevens:

Would there be any other things you’d like to see change here at GDS, oh, and good practices, or that you’ve seen elsewhere that you might want to bring in here?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I’m really pleased with the direction things are going. It would, it really does just come down to people and time.

 

I’d say that fully user-centred approach to what we provide is something that I would like to see really properly embedded across all of our wellbeing mental health work.

 

And personally, I’m much less interested on working on something that I don’t know, or have good confidence, to be useful for people, my colleagues that I work with in terms of their mental health. 

 

So I don’t want to just tick any boxes. And I don’t want to make us look nice within the Civil Service. I don’t, I’m not interested in any of that. 

 

Laura Stevens:

You don’t want to pay lip service to something.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right. It can sound repetitive but I think it’s really the thing that matters. So for me with wellbeing, it might be that the very best thing this organisation can do for its staff is to continue to provide places for them to talk, continue to train line managers, continue to train mental health first aiders, continue to run things like the Q&As and speaking events and make people feel, even if they never speak up and say ‘oh that was brilliant, I loved that talk’, you know, even if they’re very quiet about it or silent about it, we know that it’s valuable to staff for these things to take place. 

 

So we don’t have to be coming up with new things.

 

Laura Stevens:

Uh huh.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Might just keep doing simple, quiet, useful things. Which isn’t always cool and isn’t always popular. But that’s what I like.

 

Laura Stevens:

How would you say the mental health sort of practices here, employee wellbeing, compares to other workplaces? Or have you’ve spoken, in your work with this network, have you spoken to the other people from other workplaces and have they brought in ideas or you’ve shared ideas there?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Lots of people are really impressed and pleased to see what GDS has set up by the way of this open spaces to be able to talk about this. And the network and the community around to support people. But the most, lots of people who come into GDS say, ‘gosh this is, this is new to me’

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

‘This is remarkable in that, just that it exists’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think if there’s, if people are finding best practice here at GDS, is there potential for it to be shared across other government departments? Obviously if you’re involved and you go elsewhere, you can take that...

 

Ben Carpenter:

There is a cross-government network. People do try and share ideas and approaches. We did try and pool approaches to mental health first aid provision and training and business cases to support the recruitment of people to do that, for example.

 

Laura Stevens:

So there’s that opportunity for if stuff has been learnt here and tried and it’s found to work.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes. We need to get better at blogging about what we do and what works. You know we’ve done a couple of blog posts but not enough really. 

 

Laura Stevens: 

Yeah, I saw your Slack Q&A one and...

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, wrote up that. And that was good. So I did a blog post about the Q&As that I’ve been talking about. And I’ve had 3 or 4 organisations, I’ve had meetings with since then to show them how we do, and they’ve gone off and run their own.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how does that make you feel? Like sort of, it’s sort of out in the open now, it’s sort of being spread.

 

Ben Carpenter:

It’s nice. Yeah it’s good. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

It’s nice. It seems such a simple idea but it’s, behind the scenes it’s surprisingly sort of complicated to make sure you’re trying to ask, field questions in a sensitive way really keep on top of them. The last thing you would want would be to miss, miss questions coming in or feel like peo-- I wouldn’t want staff here to thi--, I’d be mortified if I thought staff felt it was sort of poorly curated or was not sensitive to their needs or feelings. So.

 

Laura Stevens:

Do you think things like the Network, the Wellbeing Group, are sort of helping encouraging people at GDS to say that’s ok to say that I have mental health, have you seen that as a response in your, anecdotally or? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Anecdotally, yeah. Definitely anecdotally. I know that many of the comments that we see on the Slack channel, either through the Q&A sessions or just spontaneously, are people saying you know, ‘I feel so glad this network exists, I feel so glad this is something that people talk about here, I feel supported by the existence of this channel and that you guys are here piping up with this stuff and it’s not taboo, or it’s not taboo here.

 

Our Slack channel, I know it’s Slack it’s just Slack, but it’s the second most, it’s got the second most number of people in it of all the channels on GDS’s Slack after the community. So you know, and that’s nobody’s been forced onto there so people come in to read and listen.

 

Yeah, so we get...it’s another very hard thing to measure.

 

Laura Stevens:

And can anyone on that Slack channel, if you’re part of the Slack channel, can anybody respond to anybody else or is it just if you’re part, if you’re a mental health first aider or is it just open to all?

 

Ben Carpenter:

No, no. It’s just an open forum. So that’s why I think the anonymity of the Q&As is so valuable. So what we do with the Q&As is a 2 hour session every month. And you can post questions through an anonymous Google form in advance which I, or whoever is coordinating the session that month, would get and copy and paste them in Slack basically. Just say here’s a question and then people reply as a thread within Slack. And if they don’t want to answer the question publically either. 

 

So we get, last time out I think there were a dozen questions, none of them posted live. So nobody wanted to ask what they wanted to ask straight into Slack with their name next to it. Maybe some of them would have if there hadn’t been an anonymous route. But if it didn’t matter, they would have done it. What’s the opposite of anonymous? Nonymous? Nonymous? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Identifiable? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, right. They would have identified, they would be happy to be identified so. So if 12 people ask 12 questions anonymously, to me that’s a massive indicator in itself, that out of an organisation of 800 of a Slack channel of three or four hundred people, you get a dozen you know…I don’t know what, you imagine there are a dozen who do dare to ask an anonymous question.

 

Laura Stevens:

Of course, yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

There must be a whole stack more who are finding it hard.

 

Laura Stevens:

A tip of the iceberg.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Right, yeah. It might not be a massive iceberg but it’s still an indicator. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And do people, how do people respond like do you have to monitor the responses or do you just let people respond how they would like?

 

Ben Carpenter:

I keep an eye on them for worrying signs, but nothing else. We never claim for it to be something of experts, it’s a peer-to-peer support thing.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

It was only, actually a couple of months ago, as a confession, running the Q&As and I thought it’s always been in the back of my mind, worrying that I would get a really scary message anonymously.

 

Laura Stevens:

Of course.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And you think, ‘oh my god, there’s somebody here who’s gonna hurt themselves or hurt someone else, or sounds really on the brink’. I’d always thought that felt like a risk of doing the Q&As. But to be honest, actually it’s only a risk of hearing about those thoughts, not a risk of creating those thoughts necessarily.

 

So it was only then that we suddenly jumped up and said we need to have a statement ready. So I do have, while I’m running the Q&As I’m ready with a document if I get something like that. I would copy and paste my message, this agreed comms message that we’ve agreed with comms and senior management, across all staff as an email and across all the Slack channels as a message, not just the Q&A, to say ‘if you sent this message containing this word’, so we wouldn’t share all of it just to make sure they knew we were talking to them, ‘then please contact one’, and we’d lead with 999.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Or talk to a first aider. You know we’d give them contact options.

 

I mean it’s an odd, yeah it’s an odd leading a network like this and getting involved in this kind of work, I do feel a massive sense of responsibility.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And in a way that’s one of the things that makes me want us to do less, really well rather than take on too much. So sometimes in the network, it can be hard in the working group for all of us to find the time just to meet and just organise ourselves just to provide a few events and speakers, and get posters and you know, sell some pin badges and coffee mornings. That can be hard just...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Even to get to that level. So I feel like whatever we do, I want us to do it well rather than lots of things averagely. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And how are you, you said about feeling this responsibility particularly for a network that deals with things like this, how are you supported in running this?

 

Ben Carpenter:

David Dilley is our mental health champion at GDS, a Senior Civil Service, Senior Civil Servant. Fiona James is the wellbeing champion. So I can talk to either of them whenever I like. Abby Peel co-leads the Wellbeing Working Group with me. So we work really nicely together, Abby’s brilliant. And there’s actually much more of like tour de force behind the stuff that does get done in the working group.

 

So I mean I’ve got my line manager, and I’ve got the first aiders and I’ve got the Q&As. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So...

 

Ben Carpenter:

This whole thing is just therapeutic for me right.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

That’s why I’m doing this ‘cause it gives me, it’s my own private brilliant therapy network.

 

All the anonymous questions on the Q&As I just, are mine for example. I make them all up myself.

 

That’s not true, that’s not true.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you are supported and?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah, of course, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And can you, you were saying, so mental health is part of the wellbeing group, can you talk a bit more about the wellbeing group, and the wellbeing, and its aims?

 

Ben Carpenter:

So yeah, so we had the Mental Health Network which was, as the title suggests quite focused just on mental health. And I think quite rightly, particularly when Fiona joined GDS and is the senior wellbeing champion for GDS.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is this Fiona James? 

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Sorry, yes. You know, it’s correct I think to pull everything together in terms of wellbeing and say, because we know there’s such strong links between physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing for starters. And if we’re trying to say you know, a bit of a common tropey type phrase about mental health is, ‘well if you broke your arm you go and see the doctor, so when you’re feeling down why don’t you go…’.

 

You know which is a bit of an ugly comparison made in those, because they’re not comparable really but, we should be trying to bring them together so to totally normalise mental health. We’re not, nobody’s got any qualms about physical health or moaning about physical health, so lets moan about our mental health. Let's be honest about it. Let’s ask for help.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

So that’s the evolution of that, and I really welcome it. In many ways the discrepancy, bothering to split these things up is really just a semantic exercise a lot of the time. Ditto for, so there’s a daily meditation session, 10 minute session, happens every day anyone can go 10 minutes of peaceful reflection. That’s meditation, it’s not, it doesn’t happen on my watch right, we don’t talk about it in the Wellbeing Peer Group. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

But it’s everything to do, there’s a running club that takes place every, every well at least every week. I’m not sure how often they run.

 

Laura Stevens:

No, I can’t say that I’m part of that so I don’t know.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Mental health doesn’t all have to be about crisis. It’s just about ongoing care. Yeah, looking after yourself. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Are there any sort of tips you can give me to create a better workplace for mental health, for employee wellbeing?

 

Ben Carpenter:

If you’re looking to provide this for staff rather than you’re somebody yourself who has mental health challenges and you’re thinking, ‘what can I do, I’m at work what can I do?’. I think it’s the openness of the topic is primary. So be bold and be brave enough to stand up and say, ‘here’s what I struggle with’. And you know talk to people, give that message out loud, ask people to reflect back to you how they feel, does it ring any bells with them.

 

So I think there’s been, so Helen Nickols, who ran the Mental Health Network before I joined it as well, I feel like she really led by example you know. She wasn’t afraid, still isn't afraid to stand up and say ‘this is what I struggle with, this is how I deal with it’, you know. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Ben Carpenter:

And I think if you can’t do that then it’s gonna be hard to expect other people to sort of come out of their shells and start to talk about things that might help them, in a way that might help them, sorry.

 

So, yeah, it really helps to have champions, people who will treat this seriously and not as a taboo. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So be open, be bold, be honest, and have champions.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yes, keep talking.

 

Laura Stevens:

Would be your sort of, yeah. And…

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And make sure that you, there’s a space as well I guess for people to be able to have these open conversations. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

I think we have to be really aware in organisations that it’s a massive luxury and privilege to be able to be frank about your mental health. It can take a massive amount of privilege. So I’m a white middle aged man with every privilege really. So, and career wise, I’m probably pretty robust. I don’t mean in GDS, ‘cause they could sack me tomorrow, but I just mean I have the luxury of being able to stand up and say you know, the reason I couldn’t come to work last week for a couple of days, was you know, mental health.

 

To expect that of everybody is not fair. So I think it falls upon people who do have those privileges just to use that capital a bit and try and break those taboos, ‘cause it’s massively biased towards people like me.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how do you get in touch with the mental, how do I join the wellbeing group?

 

Ben Carpenter:

You go on the Slack channel, you listen, you ask questions. It’s not something you can join, it’s just there for you. It’s not a club. The only aspect of it which is a club is that you need to join the Slack channel if you want to read what people are asking or saying, but even within there for a few days at a time, it may only be little nice bits of chat and people asking questions or sharing things they’ve read. So it’s not intense. 

 

If you want to get involved, if you want to give help you might want to train to be a first aider. If you want to give help you might want to put the Q&As in your diary, last Friday of every month 10 to 12 in the morning. And listen to people and offer them your support, if not expertise.

 

Sometimes people just want to be heard. Now certainly the Q&A, some of the feedback I’ve had is, ‘it’s so good just to be able to write this down and be heard, even if people didn’t know it was me who said it’. And people just say, ‘I hear you, it’s valid, you’re fine, it’s ok to think that and feel that’. So you don’t have to be like I say you know a therapist going on there with amazing clinical advice. So if you want to give help those are good ways to do that. Or you could offer to, you could think about what you could talk about if you’ve had challenges of your own, anything.

 

If you want to receive help, so if you need help, then there’s a mental health first aiders. Look on the wiki, search for mental health support, look at all, look at the wellbeing pages on there, see what activities and timetables there are for you to get involved with.

 

Go to the yoga sessions, go on the lunchtime walks, go to Abby’s crafting sessions, dial in to the Q&As, call the Cabinet Office listening service, call, go and see your GP. You know whatever you think works for you. The most important thing is to do something, it can be anything. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So if I’m listening and I’m not at GDS so I can’t join the Slack, how would be a good way to get in touch with you if I want to find out more about setting up a Slack channel at my own organisation or running this sort of network?

 

Ben Carpenter:

Totally happy to be emailed, Ben.Carpenter@digital.cabinet-office.gov.uk. That sounds right, is that right?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah, that’s right.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Yeah. I can’t give mental health advice but I will talk to you about what we do as per this podcast. 

 

And so I often talk about leaning forward, and I think this was actually the name of the Facebook CEO’s book wasn’t it recently? And I think she stole it from me.

 

The analogy being if you want to jump off a really high diving board and you’re terrified of it, don’t go up to the top of the diving board and think ‘now I’m going to jump 200 feet into this cold water’. Just go to the top of the diving board and lean forward a little bit and think, ‘I know what I’m going to do, I’m just going to lean forward’. And before you know it you’ll be in the water swimming around. Right? 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Ben Carpenter:

So I think, as with any life's big challenges, take the first step and then just try and let the other steps follow. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to Ben to talking to us today about mental health and employee wellbeing. You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms, and you can read the transcripts on PodBean. 

 

Again, thank you very much to Ben for joining.

 

Ben Carpenter:

Thank you.

 

Laura Stevens:

Goodbye.

Government Digital Service Podcast #12: The International Design in Government community

Government Digital Service Podcast #12: The International Design in Government community

September 30, 2019

Laura Stevens: 

Hello, and welcome to the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Laura Stevens and I’m a writer here at GDS. Today we’re going to be speaking about the work of the International Design in Government community. This community has grown rapidly since its inception 2 years ago, and now has 1,500 members from 66 countries and 6 continents.

 

The group brings together designers and design minded people working anywhere in the world to share best practice, host events and tackle common obstacles. And this summer, they held their first international event in the USA and Scotland.

 

So let's hear from 2 people directly involved in the community, Kara Kane and Martin Jordan. So please can you introduce yourself and tell me about your role here at GDS.

 

Kara Kane:

Hi, I’m Kara Kane. I’m the Community Lead for User-Centred Design at GDS. So I work on growing user-centered design capability and as well, understanding and awareness of user-centered design across UK government. And I also manage the International Design in Government community.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you’re quite busy.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes. 

 

Laura Stevens

And Martin?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. I’m Martin Jordan, Head of Service Design here at GDS. And this means shaping what good service design looks like across government. It means helping government increase its service design capability through recruiting, training and as well, mentoring. And then yeah, building a strong service design community across government and well now as well, internationally. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And could you describe the community to me for somebody who has never heard about it before?

 

Kara Kane:

So the community is just a group of people that are all working on similar things in government. So we have a shared purpose around making better government services. And it’s just, as you said in the intro, it’s extremely diverse and extremely international so it’s grown really quickly and as we’ve started kind of running the community in different ways, so we have online channels, we do monthly calls, we’ve now started doing events. So doing, through doing these different formats, we’ve been able to help people meet each other and helping people meet each other face-to-face.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Which then helps the online stuff and helps that make it easier because people are more willing to reach out to someone if they’ve met them in person. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And you mention you’ve got countries from all the continents apart from Antartica. 

 

Kara Kane:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. I think there are no designers there.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. 

Ok so, I thought to show how diverse the community is as we mentioned earlier, I’d ask you a few questions about some of the different 66 countries you’ve got involved.

 

Martin Jordan:

Oh gosh.

 

Laura Stevens:

So do you know who your most northerly member is?

 

Kara Kane:

Think it might be Iceland…?

 

Martin Jordan:

Oh yeah, probably.

 

Kara Kane:

We might have people in Reykjavik…?

 

Laura Stevens:

Kara, you are correct.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes!

 

Martin Jordan:

I thought of Helsinki but yes, yeah, that makes more sense, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And then we, who is your most southerly member?

 

Martin Jordan:

So it’s, it’s probably New Zealand. Because there are people, there are people in Wellington.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Martin, you got that right. 

 

Don’t doubt your guess.

 

And then you have, out of the members, you have both the largest country in the world by area and the second smallest, do you know what those 2 countries are?

 

Martin Jordan:

So one might be Russia. And the second one, I have no idea.

 

Laura Stevens:

OK, you got Russia, so Kara, can you do the second, the second smallest country in the world by area?

 

Kara Kane:

It might be Monaco..?

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes! Well done.

 

So, and then the final one, just to showcase this diverse group, you have a country that’s a member, that is made up of more than 200 islands.

 

Kara Kane:

I was ready for this one. I did some pre-work. So I know that this is Palau. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Well done! So this shows how, even amongst these diverse groups, there’s lots of shared traits with design in government. 

 

Was there a particular catalyst for this International Design in Government group? How did it start?

 

Martin Jordan:

So our former boss Lou Downe, at that time Director for Design, and the UK government, they like to blog. And they wrote a blog post I think in February 2017. And they referenced the D-5 countries.

 

Laura Stevens:

Could you explain the D-5?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. So the D-5 countries were kind of like very digital countries that came together I think around 2011 or so. That included the UK, Estonia, Israel, New Zealand and South Korea. And there’s an ongoing conversation and a regular monthly call around design around government. And there was a special edition on design.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

That we did do in early 2017. And Lou basically wrote a blog post and said like, well we’re having this great community of designers in the UK government, but there’s probably like more stuff to do as well on a global scale, because we very likely have common issues. 

 

We all kind of like, design services that are somewhat similar. Policies might be different, laws might be different but overall, there are a lot of like, similarities. So we might be able to like, scale co-authored patterns, we might be looking at like, how to embed user-centred culture in government.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes. 

 

Martin Jordan:

All of those things. So they wrote a blog post and then we were like, ‘ok, what does it actually mean?’.

 

Kara Kane:

We had a form at the end of the blog post for people to let us know if they were interested in joining whatever this thing would be. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So I went away and took that list of people, and kind of started developing the community. So we just invited all of those people to a Google group and then went from there.

 

Laura Stevens:

And it grew really rapidly. Like I’ve got here in the first 10 months, it grew to 250 people from 37 countries. What sort of like challenges did you face when you were growing it at that sort of scale quickly?

 

Kara Kane:

I think with any community, starting it is, is just difficult to start kind of forming relationships and to start getting the conversation going. So as a Community Manager, it was really about trying to get to know people in the community, trying to start introducing people, trying to just, like I would just have calls with people to find out what they’re working on to get to know them a little bit. 

 

And then we started running these monthly calls, which were a way to, to kind of start sharing work in a different way. But again that took a while for the focus to turn away from GDS in to, to be a focus on sharing internationally. So not just us kind of telling, but us learning as well from, from other people. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And do you find there are a lot of shared things? ‘Cause obvio--, the countries we mentioned earlier, they’ve got hugely different geographies, populations, all different. But are you finding there’s, they are these shared obstacles that designers face in government and what, what would some of them be?

 

Martin Jordan:

So in some places, there might not be a designer there at all but like a design minded person who’s doing it in some way.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

So they ask like, how do you, how do you make the first business case for the first designer, and then we might be able to like, share like some of, some of the arguments and also there are a lot of, a lot of good stories out there so we try to like, give them good examples that they can kind of like, go to their, their seniors and like, advocate with these stories.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Martin Jordan:

That is quite, quite, quite, quite powerful.

 

Kara Kane:

Then following on from that, if you think about things like immigration, like that runs across…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...every, everywhere. So there’s a lot that we can, can learn from the similarities and differences of how, of how we run services related to immigration or employment or benefits. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And is it quite a lot of physical meetups or is it more sort of interaction online? You mentioned earlier there’s Google groups, Slack. So how does that, how do you all communicate with each other in the community?

 

Kara Kane:

When it first started it was all online. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Uh huh.

 

Kara Kane:

And because it’s an international community and, from the beginning it was really widespread in terms of representation geographically, it was hard to kind of think about you know what’s, what’s something we could do to get people to meet face to face. And I think the monthly calls were a way to do that. Because we were using Zoom, so it was the first way to like, show my face…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

...to the community. And to, for Martin and Lou, when we were all on these calls, and meeting people. But then from there, I think, when I first joined GDS, Martin always wanted to do a conference.

 

So we were always looking for a reason to run a conference. And then the international community seemed like that was the next natural step, was to get people together face to face.

 

Laura Stevens: 

So yeah. You had your first official conference in London, 2018. Can you talk a bit about that and how you went about getting everybody here from all these different countries, who was able to attend with that?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. So we had a tiny budget to actually make this happen. We didn’t spend much, much money on that. And we kind of relied on kind of, everyone paying for their own flight tickets…

 

Kara Kane:

So when we, when we decided to run an international conference, we really wanted to involve the community in what it would look like. So we started sending surveys and emails out to the community to say, ‘what do you want this to be? Do you want to even come? What kind of format do you want it to be? Where should it be? What time of the year?’ So we kind of used the community to figure out what it should look like.

 

And then from there, started to shape the agenda. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What was the atmosphere like on the day?

 

Kara Kane:

It was exciting.

 

Martin Jordan:

I think people were like, super excited to see each other. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah,

 

Martin Jordan:

Because apart from like, interacting via Slack and as well as seeing each other in the monthly calls, people started following each other on Twitter, and there was quite an exchange there. 

 

As well, some people met at other international conferences. So whenever there was kind of a design or service design conference, they were like, like almost like, you how they were like literally like asking like, ‘who else is there?’ I was in Helsinki at some point in winter when it was freezing and I was like, ‘Hey, Finnish government folks, shall we meet for tea?’ and they were like, ‘yeah!’.

 

So like, you were, yeah. I think it was a really really great atmosphere and for, for the conference, for the 2 days, we tried to have representatives from all continents. 

 

So we tried to like, yeah, have a, have a good representation of of of regions. And then we had workshops on the second day. And for those workshops we really basically asked everyone in the UK government who can kind of like, host a workshop, run a workshop. 

 

Laura Stevens:

What came out of that in terms of saying that people were more connected and did any like working groups come out of it? 

 

Martin Jordan:

So the Finns, the folks in (the) Finnish government, started kind of like, a local community that gets together every, every month. And literally today, the Finns, as well the Estonians, run a joint workshop meetup together. So we actually started to, regionally we started connecting, connecting people with each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

They’re now doing things, which is amazing to see. Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

I think another thing that came out of it is, so at the very end of the conference, we kind of asked people ‘do you want this to happen again?’, ‘do you want there to be another conference?’.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

And people were like, ‘yeah!’. And there’s people, in the community, who are willing to kind of, take on the responsibility to do something. So that was really, really exciting. 

 

But I think, yeah the other thing was just, we’ve had people tell us that they know feel more confident to reach out to people. Like they’ve met people face to face, or at least they saw them at the conference, so now they feel like they can reach out to them. 

 

People are using tools and methods that they learned in some of the workshops. They’re continuing to, to work on the things, if they, if they presented at the, at the  conference, they’re continuing to work on those, on those things that they were presenting about. Whether it was a workshop format or a kind of, yeah, a different way of thinking. So that’s really exciting. 

 

Martin Jordan:

Some countries even like, started translating some of the tools they’re using into English to make it more accessible for other community members, which is amazing to see.

 

Laura Stevens:

What, I was also going to ask about that. Because obviously running an international community, you have the time zones and the language, do you, how do you get round those things?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Time zones are really difficult for the monthly calls. In the very beginning, we tried to run, I don’t know why I thought this was a good idea but I was like, we’ll just do the call twice and obviously that did not work. And obviously that’s a ton of work. 

 

So what we started was just to, just to move the times around. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So it’s not like always run a call at the same time. We’re always trying to, to kind of, engage with different people. So we’ll run calls after work, later in the evening so that the Australians and the Kiwis can join. 

 

Martin Jordan:

But not too early in the morning.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah, not too early in the morning. Happy to, happy to do things after work but not before (laughter from everyone).

 

Laura Stevens:

And the languages, are all the calls run in English?

 

Kara Kane and Martin Jordan (same time):

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

We haven’t, we haven’t encountered any issues with, with language. But I think you know, going forward we’re trying to be as, as inclusive as we can. We’re trying to reach as many kind of countries working in this space as we can. So that might be something that we have to think about in the future. 

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah we were really impressed to hear recently that at a conference in Taiwan, a government conference, they had subtitles in 12 different languages to reflect like, all the people attending. And we still have no idea how, how to make that work but this kind of like, the level of ambition. 

 

So at the most recent conference in Edinburgh, there was live subtitling in English and we’re looking into like, technologies to make it as inclusive as possible.

 

Laura Stevens:

And that leads me nicely on. Because you mentioned earlier that this, the last event in 2018, led directly to the 2019 events. And this is the first time that the events have gone global. So could you talk through those, what’s happened so far this year?

 

Kara Kane:

The first thing that we did this year was collaborate with Code for America. Code for America is a non-profit in the United States and they work on reforming government nationally. So they work really closely with state and local level government. They do really amazing work, and they run a summit, they run a yearly summit called ‘Code for America Summit’. And our idea was to bring the international community to the summit. So what we did was run a one-day international design in government day…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...before the Code for America Summit. So that was in Oakland in May of this year. And yeah, it was a real collaboration between between our 2 organisations. And to really bring the community to the US and reach people there that we’re not reaching, you’d think that the US would have a really strong design in government community, but they don’t yet. It’s still kind of nascent and forming. So it was really exciting to kind of, try and get all of those people in the room. Which they found really really valuable just to meet people like them, working on the same types of problems and challenges.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is that because of like, the vast geography of America or is, and the federal...or is that?

 

Martin Jordan:

The latter as well. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, totally. Totally.

 

And of course again like, there’s a lot of stuff that they can share. And then they can share kind of like, their recipes to how to solve a certain thing with other people.

 

Laura Stevens:

Well, and that sharing tool--like I noticed New Zealand picked up the GOV.UK Design System and...

 

Martin Jordan:

Yes.

 

This was amazing to see. Yeah, they kind of like took that and kind of made it theirs. Like restyling it, taking a few things in and out.

 

Laura Stevens:

And was that facilitated by the community?

 

Martin Jordan:

Well to some degree. So we have those monthly calls with themes, and the most popular ones were around design systems. So we actually had to, to repeat this theme so we had it in 2018 and did it in 2019 again because there’s so much interest.

 

And I think this was by far the most popular call we had, with more than 100 people joining.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh wow. Ok so...

 

Martin Jordan:

And partially it was like a group of people in one room like, counting as 1 right.

 

Laura Stevens:

Oh ok. 

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. It was our biggest call ever. I was just completely shocked to see over a 100 people online joining us on Zoom.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is it quite tricky to manage that as sort of, or does, is everyone quite respectful when somebody’s talking, everyone else will be muted. Is that, how is that to manage?

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. We have to set some, some ground, ground rules at the beginning to say, ‘everyone please go on mute’. And like yeah, there’s kind of there’s rules around, around how to ask questions. So there’s a chat function which is really easy to use, so you can write your question in the chat.

 

And then if you feel comfortable enough to go off mute and ask your question during the time for questions, then you can do that. Or I just read through the questions and try and help facilitate, facilitate that. 

 

Martin Jordan:

And there’s always recordings as well. So people can go back. So when they join the community later, they’re able to like, watch these previous calls or recordings of those, and once in a while, when people like, raise a question on Slack or on the mailing list, we’re like look, this was already covered, like have a look and they’re so thankful to like, find these resources.

 

Laura Stevens:

And if we can go back to the America, the conference in America. Was the community involved with organising that like it was with the one in London, or was that is that a slightly different way it was organised?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

We reached out to some of the North American community members.

 

Laura Stevens:

And who would they be?

 

Kara Kane:

So we had people at Nava [Nava Public Benefit Corporation] in the United States, we had people at the Canadian Digital Service, people at the United States Digital Service, the USDS.

 

Martin Jordan:

Veteran Services.

 

Kara Kane:

So we kind of came up with 3 different kind of themes, which were around getting leadership buy-in for user-centered design, designing services for and with everyone and building design capacity and capability.

 

Martin Jordan:

This was kind of like, although it was called International Design in government day, it was more kind of like, North American design in government.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah. With that regionalised context?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And how did it feel on the day? Did it feel similar to the one you felt, you did in London, or was it different?

 

Martin Jordan:

I mean I was so impressed.

 

Kara Kane:

It was a lot of people that we hadn’t met before from the community, or people that were new to the community. It was people that maybe hadn’t all been in the same room before.

 

Laura Stevens and Martin Jordan (same time):

Yeah. 

 

Kara Kane:

As in designers working in government kind of talking about things and realising, ‘oh my gosh, I’m not the only person...’ 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...that has these really frustrating things’. Or that has you know, learning about a success of someone like you just feel, you could feel how proud people were. And that was amazing.

 

Laura Stevens:

And do you think that sort of, like talking, you were talking there about that sort of emotional support that the community provides, and that sense of ‘oh no, you’re not alone’. And obviously there’s very practical outcomes like you can use the same user research or you can use parts of the design system, but do you think that emotional support is quite a big part of why people get involved in the community?

 

Martin Jordan:

Absolutely. This is..

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. Definitely. 

 

Martin Jordan:

This is, such a, such a strong, strong point. And yeah, I think, I think we see this as well in the Slack conversations. Like people asking questions and getting then a response from from somewhere, from another part of the world, is, is really reassuring. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And we should talk about your second conference as well in Scotland this year. So what happened there?

 

Kara Kane:

So when I mentioned at the conference in London, when we had the hands up, well one of the hands was Anna Henderson, who is a Service Designer in Scottish government, in the Office of the Chief Designer. So Anna and her team got in touch with us and said, ‘hey, like we’re really serious, like we really want to do this, like we’re going to get budget, like everyone is, everyone is excited’. They had you know, from their team level up to their minister, ministerial level, was really excited about running an international conference.

 

So Martin and I were like, amazing, let’s do this! 

 

Laura Stevens:

Great!

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. Why wouldn’t we do this? 

 

So this was the first time that we were kind of running an event, or this is the first time that we were kind of handing over the responsibility of running a conference to someone else.

 

Laura Stevens:

So you didn’t do the agenda or…?

 

Kara Kane:

So we really kind of stepped back. And our role was to kind of, advise and share what we had learned from running the conference in London.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah. So it was really shaped around the values of Scottish government, which is a lot about inclusion and participation. So the theme of the conference was participation involving citizens in the design of government and public services. And they had really amazing talks from the community, they had things on inclusive recruitment, they had things on doing international research, they had things on working with policy colleagues, and there was a fantastic keynote by Dr. Sally Witcher, who’s the Chief Executive of Inclusion Scotland. 

 

And I think the whole atmosphere of the conference as well was really also encompassing their values. So as Martin said, they had captioning for all of the keynotes and all of the breakouts. So every single room that you went into, there was live captioning available to you. And for all of the keynotes on the main stage, we also had British Sign Language interpreters.

 

Laura Stevens:

And is this something you’d want to carry forward now having seen it done in action?

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah, I think as Martin said, with trying to figure out like, how can we use technology, and these kind of new technologies that are available, around live transcription and live translation. Like how can we use those better because that’s just, that would be just so amazing to be able to help people feel more involved if they can understand the content better.

 

Laura Stevens:

And we can also look forward as well to the, your final is, your final international event of the year. 

 

Kara Kane:

And biggest. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And biggest in Rotterdam. And so yeah, can, Martin, can you tell me a bit about that?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, yeah. So yeah, as I said it will be the biggest conference we’ve had so far. So the Dutch government is leading on that. So the, my Dutch is really bad but the Gebruiker Centraal community, so which means like users first. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Which is a community in the Dutch government that is around I think, for a few years now. So they had local events and as well conferences there for a while. And now they’re kind of like, opening up and embracing and welcoming all the international visitors. So they’re aiming although, we’re aiming for like 800 people...

 

Laura Stevens:

Wow.

 

Martin Jordan:

...that will come together for like a full three days in Rotterdam in like mid-November this year, so 18th until 20th. And there will be workshops again, because we try to like not only in all of the conferences, not only have people talking at you, but you can actually participate and interact with people. So there’s always a lot of time for like, networking and workshopping things.

 

At the same time as well, kind of like open, other open formats, panel discussions. So all of that is going to happen. And again, there’s been like call for participations, we have been creating a kind of like, advisory board, again an international advisory board. Where people from different continents kind of like help shape as well, the content. 

 

We’re still on an ongoing basis like asking for more content, because there will be so many people so we need a lot of content as well. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So you’re doing a call out now live to…

 

Martin Jordan:

Yes! 

 

Laura Stevens:

So how if you, how do you put something forward, how do I go to this conference?

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So you can go to ‘international.gov-design.com’. There you find all of the events that have happened already, and the one that’s happening next. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And are you hoping this will, you mentioned for like the American one was a bit more localised to North America. Are you hoping this will have a more global outlook because it’s just a bigger conference?

 

Martin Jordan:

The other day, I was listening to a talk from the Italians and I feel like everybody is kind of innovating in another pocket. So at the beginning some people were like, ‘oh GDS is so far ahead’, but like, we are ahead in some regards. In other regards like, other governments are totally leading. So there’s a lot of stuff we can learn from each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Is there an example you can think of, maybe from that conference that you were like, ‘oh, they’re doing so much better, we can learn from them’. 

 

Martin Jordan:

So the design system that was created by the US folks and as well the design system created by, by the Australians, contains like various components that we might not have had.

 

So there has been, after one of the calls, like kind of like, an immediate exchange of code...

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

...which was like, wow. We were like, ‘oh this is a component we do not have here’. So that people…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Martin Jordan:

...just share code literally, just…

 

Laura Stevens:

Straight away.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah. Which is quite amazing, amazing to see. Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

And in terms of obviously, you’ve had a really significant growth over these past few years, in terms of where you want to the community to go, is there any plans you’ve got for 2020, in terms of maybe, targeting different countries or growing it further or in a different direction. What would be your take on that?

 

Kara Kane:

In terms of the events, we’re intrigued to see how we can continue running those, and how we can continue having the community take ownership of those events. So we have been in, we’ve had people contact us from 3 different countries saying that they’re interested in running a conference. So we are in talks.

 

Laura Stevens:

Watch this space. 

 

Kara Kane:

Watch this space.

 

So we’re trying to think about you know, how many events should we do a year, and what should those events look like, and how big should they be. So we’re working on a bit of a conference playbook…

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

...at the moment, that we can share with people who want to run a conference, to really help them be able to do it. 

 

So in general for the community, going forward, we want it be, we want it to continue to be a place that is supportive for people working in this environment and in this space. We want to continue bringing people together, we want to continue seeing things like the Finns and the Estonians kind of working together and running events together. 

 

And you know, people working on similar service areas coming together to share and learn from each other. But we really you know, in the future, want to get to a point where we’re, as Martin said around the design system example, like how can we share interaction and service design patterns.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

There’s so much kind of possibility for that. So how can the community facilitate that and what does that look like and is it possible, and at what level can we get to, and how can we keep you know, stealing from each other.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

Stealing code, stealing ideas and just you know, really learning from what everyone else is doing. So it’s really about kind of, maximising share and re-use, which is the theme of the November conference.

 

Martin Jordan:

Exactly, yes.

 

Laura Stevens:

And so if, how would I join this community if I’ve been listening to this, wherever I am in the world, how would I join?

 

Martin Jordan:

So we have quite a few blog posts on the design in government blog, that is one of the GDS blogs. 

 

There you have a dedicated international category, and whatever international blog post you read, at the bottom there are all the links to join the Google group. And then you’re part of the community.

 

Kara Kane:

So once you apply to join the Google group, and join the community, then you’re sent a welcome email. Which kind of tells you about the Slack channels, it tells you about the recordings of the monthly calls, it tells you about the events that are coming up. So you can immediately find out what’s going on and how to get involved. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And tell me about applying. Who exactly can join the group?

 

Kara Kane:

So it’s open to people that are working embedded in government, working in user-centered design. So you could be a designer, a user researcher, some working in accessibility, anyone who’s interested in design, and you have to be interested in talking about those things, from any government in the world, is welcome to join.

 

Laura Stevens:

And I don’t know if we could round off with maybe some tips that you, on how to set up your own community, if this is something, if there’s some quick fire tips that you’ve found over learning this community. Sort of, how do you scale, how do you keep momentum going and what tools do you need.

 

Is there anything you’d want to add those?

 

Kara Kane:

I think the first thing is using platforms that people are already on. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So…

 

Laura Stevens:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. 

 

Kara Kane:

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Please.

 

Just people use Slack, so use Slack. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

People use email, so use Google groups. It makes it so much easier if you make it hard for people to actually get to the platform where the conversation is happening, you’re already putting up a barrier to your community.

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

So make it really easy, easy to access once you’re part of the community. And easy to, easy to respond and join conversations.

 

Martin Jordan:

And if there are events happening, whether they’re kind of like online calls or like physical meetups with talks, like if you can, try to record stuff. So if there is like material you can share, because people will either kind of like, join communities later. Yeah, do that. 

 

Or as well be not able to attend, and if you can then share the materials so they can still consume it in their own time, it’s really beneficial.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah and I think, building on that, is just having different formats. So not just having a Google group or a Slack group, where it can be really really scary to ask a question or share something. 

 

Having things like monthly calls where you’re kind of, inviting people in to present, inviting people to consume information in a different way, having face to face events where people can network and meet people in a different way. Just having different options for people to feel engaged in the community. 

 

Laura Stevens:

So different formats, use the tools people are already on and record what you do.

 

Kara Kane:

Yes.

 

Martin Jordan:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

Three excellent tips.

 

Kara Kane:

And help introduce people. 

 

Laura Stevens:

And is that sort of, facilitating..?

 

Kara Kane:

As a Community Manager. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Kara Kane:

It’s really, especially in the beginning, is just help facilitate relationship building. 

 

Laura Stevens:

Yeah.

 

Arrange lots of cups of coffee.

 

Kara Kane:

Yeah.

 

Laura Stevens:

So thank you to both Kara and Martin today for telling us about their experience in running the international design in government community. So thank you for coming on.

 

Kara Kane:

Thank you!

 

Martin Jordan:

Thank you.

 

Thank you to both Kara and Martin today for telling us about their experience in running the international design in government community. 

 

You can listen to all the episodes of the Government Digital Service podcast on Apple Music, Spotify and all other major podcast platforms. And you can read the transcripts on Podbean. 

 

Thank you both again very much.

Government Digital Service Podcast #11: On clear writing

Government Digital Service Podcast #11: On clear writing

August 27, 2019

A year on from launching the GDS podcast, senior creative writers Angus Montgomery and Sarah Stewart talk about their jobs.

 

The pair discuss their career paths and the role of writers in government and how clear writing can help people to do their jobs better.

 

 

Angus Montgomery: Hello, and welcome to the latest episode of the Government Digital Service podcast. My name is Angus Montgomery and I’m a Senior Writer at GDS. And for this episode of the podcast, I’m joined by my colleague Sarah Stewart. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Hello. I’m also a Senior Writer at GDS. 

 

Angus Montgomery: So our voices might sound quite familiar because both Sarah and I, with our colleague Laura, have been on all the episodes of the GDS podcasts that we’ve done so far and as part of those episodes, we’ve been interviewing people across GDS and across government about their work and talking about the things that they do to help transform government and to build digital services and to make things better for users. 

 

And, we realised that we’re nearly a year into this podcast now, I think this is our 11th episode, and we haven’t actually properly introduced ourselves and talk about what we do, and how our work contributes to digital transformation across government and helps everyone in GDS and across government do their jobs better. So that’s what we intend to do with this podcast.

 

Sarah Stewart: And we’re also going to be sharing our top tips for clear writing, which we’ve put together over the past 3 years of working at GDS, so we’ll be sharing those with you as well.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah, so Sarah and I, just as a bit of background, we’re both Creative Writers at the Government Digital Service. We both joined on the same day. Can you remember what day that was? Testing you. 

 

Sarah Stewart: It was May 23rd. 

 

Angus Montgomery: I thought it was the 22nd. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Strong start. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Sarah’s memory is better than mine. May 23rd 2016. And we work as part of a team called the Creative Team in GDS. 

 

And we’re in a team that also has people like filmmakers, production experts, graphic designers, Graham Higgins, who’s also in the room with us, who is doing the production of this podcast and is one of our filmmakers, and audio production and all sorts of other amazing things as well.

 

And our role, the role of our team, is to help everyone in GDS, from Director General down throughout the organisation of all parts talk about their work, communicate their work and explain what it’s doing to help government work better and to make things better for users.

 

Sarah Stewart: Don’t sell us short, Angus. We also write at a ministerial level as well. So it’s from Minister down.

 

Angus Montgomery: So, yeah what we want to do with this podcast as Sarah has already talked about, is explain a bit about our jobs and what we’re here to do, talk a bit about writing and communication and why it’s important and to give our ten top tips, pieces of guidance, principles, whatever it is that you want to call them about how to write and communicate more clearly. 

 

So that’s what we’re going to do. But before we kick that off...Sarah, can you tell me a little bit about what your background is and how you came to work at GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart: Well I don’t know how far we should go back - but at school, the only 2 things that I thought I was good at and enjoyed were English and rounders. And there’s not much you can do with rounders, so I pursued English. I read English at university, came down to London, did my postgrad down here. Became a journalist. Hated every second of it. I was a business journalist and it was a generally terrible experience for me. Although I did pick up some useful things, like always carry a notebook and pen with you, which I still do to this day. 

 

Angus Montgomery: How’s your shorthand?

 

Sarah Stewart: It is non-existent. And also about libel as well, that was an important lesson.

 

Angus Montgomery: Oh yeah, that’s very important.

 

Sarah Stewart: And then I was lucky enough to get a job working at Shelter, which is a housing and homelessness charity and they also campaign for better housing rights and conditions. And I was a Content Writer and Producer there, so I launched their advice Youtube channel, I edited their advice on their website, I launched their advice sound clips, and I edited their blog as well, of case studies.

 

And then after a couple of years, I found out about the job at GDS.

 

Angus Montgomery: What attracted you to GDS?

 

Sarah Stewart: Funny story actually, I had never heard of GDS before applying. I was at Shelter and someone that I worked with left the job advert on my desk with a post-it that said ‘this is the kind of job you can go for in a few years time’ and I thought ‘Screw that, I'll apply for it now.’ 

 

It wasn’t really my ambition to work in government, but it kind of worked out well. I really enjoy what we do now. But you did know about GDS before you joined.

 

Angus Montgomery: I did. So my background was similar in the sense that I was a journalist, I hadn’t worked doing anything else actually, I’d been a journalist my entire career

 

Sarah Stewart: And you liked it?

 

Angus Montgomery: Uh, yeah. I mean like...Liked is not a strong word.

 

Sarah Stewart:...liked it more than I did? Did you cry in the loos everyday like I did?

 

Angus Montgomery: No, that’s really unpleasant and horrible. I’m sorry that you went through that. But there might have been some loo crying at certain stages. I think the thing about journalism, as you sort of implied, is that when it’s good, it’s really fun and it is a great industry to work in. 

 

And you can do lots of different things, and lots of exciting things and meet lots of interesting people. It is really really tough. And when it’s bad, it is very very unpleasant and a difficult environment to work in. 

 

So I was working for a website called Design Week, which covers the UK design industry. Around the time I became editor was around the time that GDS was setting up and launching and getting a really big profile. And was winning awards like a D&AD black pencil and the design of the year awards, so obviously it was a really really big design story. And I got to know some of the design team in GDS, and I was you know obviously, while that was happening, an observer of what was happening, I was reading all the blog posts, I was looking at all the posters and all the other communication that it was putting out 

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh my god, you’re really putting me to shame.

 

Angus Montgomery: But GDS was a really big story, it looked really interesting to me, was hugely appealing in the sense that of, something similar to what you said, this was an organisation that was serving the whole nation. 

 

And an organisation that was very clearly there to do something good. It was there to help government work better for users and for everyone, for civil servants and everyone. Being involved in something like that was really really appealing, and remains really really appealing, it’s why I still come to work everyday.

 

Before we get onto the kind of, the writing aspect and the top tips, the kind of the educational part of this podcast, what is it that you enjoy most about working at GDS and what do you find most satisfying?

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s a good question. I’m lucky to say that they are quite a few things that I enjoy. I like the fact that when I write, and that can be if I’m drafting a speech or writing a presentation or helping someone edit a policy document or write a ministerial forward, that I’m actually doing something that’s important to the idea of democracy, because in order for people to make good decisions, they need to know what the facts are. And I like that I can ask the difficult questions that get to the facts, I like that I can challenge people and say ‘no, you need to include more detail’, I can say ‘you should leave this out because it’s maybe not the right time to come out and say this particular thing.’

 

I love the feeling when someone, maybe this is a bit self-indulgent, but when someone is delivering a speech that I’ve written, it’s like the best feeling in the world, because I’m naturally introverted and I know that these words aren’t my words, but when a joke goes down really well and the audience laughs or when you, you know, when the key message has been hit and people understand it and an action is taken, that’s massively rewarding. 

 

But there’s... I get so much pleasure from just the act of writing. I mean when I’m not doing it at GDS, I’m doing it in my spare time. There’s just something really satisfying, I guess like mathematicians, when they do a sum correctly or they workout a formula and it and it all works out wonderfully well, it’s writing a sentence that flows beautifully and is truthful and you know, moves people to do something or to consider something in a different way. 

 

So I don’t think there’s really one part that I don’t enjoy. I mean I hate meetings, but doesn’t everyone? What, how about you?

 

Angus Montgomery: I think something similar. Although I’m kind of less wedded in a weird way to the craft of writing. I mean writing, it’s not something that I don’t enjoy but I kind of, I don’t get a huge amount of pleasure in a sense from, like constructing a sentence or the kind of technical aspects of it. But the thing I enjoy most is, I really like the idea that writing is structured thinking. 

 

So when you write something down, you need to be really clear and it needs to be really structured and it needs to make sense. And so the thing I get most satisfaction from is, when you’re working with someone to help them explain a difficult concept that can exist maybe only in their own head, and they’re explaining it in a way that they can’t fully articulate, you’re just about understanding it.  And there’s that breakthrough moment when you write something down and you show it to them and they go ‘yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say!’  

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: ‘That makes total sense, that’s exactly what I’m trying to do’. That to me is the really satisfying part of this, is like getting. And I suppose corollary to that is the fact that we work with really intelligent, really nice people as well, but really super intelligent people that are really driven and really focussed on what they’re doing, and have these really complex things going on in their heads.

 

And maybe because they are so close to that work, the aren’t always capable or don’t always find it easy to communicate as clearly as possible. And that’s really our role is to go in there and say, ‘right, let me inside your head, let me inside all those really deep technical details and All the different things that you’re thinking about. And I will help you communicate this clearly’. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: And like that to me is the really satisfying part, it’s like being the bridge between this really intelligent person who has a really complicated idea, and the person who needs to understand that.

 

At the risk of asking I suppose a cliched question, tell me about your day-to-day, and what it is that you actually do, and what it is that we do and what we write and produce?

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, so we write a whole host of things. So there’s obviously the kind of straightforward written content, so blog posts, press articles, op-eds. I tend to...

 

Angus Montgomery: What’s an op-ed?

 

Sarah Stewart: Oh sorry. Good question. It’s, well actually I was, I…

 

Angus Montgomery: I don’t know the answer to this actually, which is why I…

 

Sarah Stewart: It’s either…So there are some people who think it’s an opinion editorial. So someone just speaking about a subject that they know. Other people think that it means ‘opposite the editorial page’ But basically what we take it to mean, and what I’m doing I think, is writing an opinion piece so…

 

Angus Montgomery: For a newspaper or magazine.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah for a newspaper or a magazine. And so I’ll be writing on behalf of somebody, I don’t think it’s any secret to say that you know in government, there are speech writers and there are other...people like us exist in order to kind of help Senior Civil Servants communicate. 

 

So, I tend to specialise in speeches but we also write presentations for people across GDS, we might be writing forewords for strategy papers, we might be editing, you know, policy documents, but that’s a very small part of what we do I think. And we also write scripts for animations and films and do things like podcasts.

 

Angus Montgomery: So we wanted to give you ten principles that help us communicate clearly, and that we think you might benefit from as well. And some of them are you know, things that might seem obvious and some of them may be are a bit more left field. But they are all things that we kind of, help us to our day-to-day jobs. 

 

So without further ado, Sarah do you want to give us point one and tell us a little bit about it?

 

Sarah Stewart: OK so my first principle is: Establish ‘The Point’. Before you write anything, whether it’s a speech, a blog post, a presentation, a love letter – establish what the point of your writing is. And ‘The Point’ comprises two parts – and I’m thinking of trademarking this actually, it’s: What you want you want to say and why it needs to be said. We’ll come onto audience in just a second. 

 

So once you’ve established what the point is, write it on a post-it note, stick it at the top of your doc. It will be your guiding star. It will keep you relevant, it will keep you focused and if you can’t figure out what the point is, don’t write. Don’t agree to do the speech. Don’t agree to do the presentation. The chances are you’ll come up with the point at a future date, but if you’re really struggling to establish what it is that you want to say and the reason for saying it, just don’t do it. You’ll waste people’s time and wasting people’s time is a sin. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Point three of the point, I think. You’ve got what you want to say and why you want to say it but also who you want to say it to.The audience, as you mentioned,  is an important thing. You have to assume that the thing you’re saying is interesting to someone or to a group of people, and then you have to work out who that group of people is. Knowing that will help you work out the best way of communicating your message. It might be that the thing you want to say or write is best done as a blog post, or it might best done as a film, or best done presentation or it might be better to draw it as a picture and create a poster of it. Knowing the what, the why and who you’re trying to tell it to, will help you shape your message and the way you’re communicating your message. 

 

My first point so number 2 of our principles is, ‘write it like you’d say it’. So I mentioned earlier about a big part of our role, or the main part of our role is to help organisations, this organisation, communicate in a human voice.

 

To me a human voice is the voice that you would use to describe something to a friend when you’re you know, having lunch or at the pub or at the park or whatever. Like if this is that thing about like, if you’re trying to describe a really difficult technical concept, then think about how you would explain it to a friend or to your mum or to you know, son or daughter or whatever it might be.

 

And then write down the way that you would do that. So it shouldn’t be really that much difference between the written word and the spoken word. Although obviously you’ll have far fewer sort of ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ and all those sorts of things.

 

But like a human voice written on page should sound like speech to me. So when you read something, it should sound like someone is saying it to you, someone is speaking to you in the way that, in a sort of slightly informal, kind of suppose, kind of friendly tone of voice but in a way that’s understandable and relatable.

 

And that really helps you to, I think, get away from what can be a quite, there can be a formality about the written word, and I think that this is again, why some people find writing quite a sort of scary prospect, is it can feel like you have to use the longest most complex, most impressive words possible. 

 

And actually you really don’t. You need to use the shortest, clearest, simplest words possible just as you would if you were trying to explain something verbally really clearly. So write it like you’d say it, and the way, a thing that can help you to do that is, as you’re writing something down, read it out.

 

Does it make sense if you say it out loud? Does it make sense if you say it in your head? Does that article that you’ve written sound like something you would naturally say? If it does, then you’re broadly along the right lines I think.

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s a good tip. And it neatly links it my next point, which is ‘don’t try and sound clever’.

 

Essentially what you want to be is clear and concise and don’t over do it. Don’t try and impress anyone because you are probably doing something that is impressive. You probably have all the vocabulary you need to express it clearly. Leave it there. 

 

This reminds me of a good quote by the investor Charlie Munger. He said ‘if you want to be thought of as a good guy, be a good guy.’ So if you want to come across as smart, then be smart and explain what you’re doing. But don’t go out there having an agenda that you have to come across as something. It’s inauthentic. 

 

You see it, particularly in academic writing. People who are so in that world become - it’s almost impossible to cut through what they’re saying. For example, my friend sent me the abstract of his book and his opening sentence was 58 words long with no punctuation. I could individually pick out what every single word meant, I knew the meaning of each word but in the syntax, in that sentence, I had no idea what was going on. And I was trying to give positive feedback and I said look I’m really sorry, I don’t know what it is you’re trying to say and he said: ‘Oh, well, it’s written for academics’ - well, presumably at some point you want other people to read it! 

 

Angus Montgomery: Sometimes in this organisation as well, people say ‘oh it’s written for Senior Civil Servants’ or it’s written for a particular audience or it’s written someone whose a specialist, but they are people too. When you’re a senior civil servant, you don’t suddenly become this person who communicates in a really arcane fashion or understands things in a really complex fashion. You’re also a person who needs to understand things really, really quickly, so being able to write things down and explain things in a clear and accessible fashion is appropriate for any reader, regardless of who they are. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, actually there’s a really good discussion if you want some further reading or further listening. It’s Stephen Pinker in conversation with Ian McEwan on academic writing and the importance of clear writing. So after you’ve listened to this podcast, do give it a watch it’s on YouTube. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Which leads nicely, these are segueing quite nicely together I think, to my point or my next point. Which is something that we say quite a lot at GDS, which is ‘show the thing’. And by that we mean if you’re talking about something or you’re trying to tell someone about a product or a service or a thing, just show it.

 

Explain how it works, say what it is, don’t use metaphors, don’t try to dress it up, don’t try to make it sound like it’s doing things that it isn’t. Just explain what it does.

 

Because as you’ve just said, if the thing that you’ve built or the thing that you’re trying to describe is valuable and worth talking about, then all you need to do is explain it clearly and it will do the work for you. 

 

You don’t need to dress it up, you don’t need to put marketing on it, you don’t need to you know make it sound like it’s the incredible next you know, use loads of adjectives like ‘stunning’ and ‘life changing’. You just need to show it and if it’s a worthwhile thing then the reader will understand that and accept that and will be on board with it.

 

So show the thing, talk about it as clearly as possible, say what it does, and that’s all you need to do. That’s basically it.

 

Sarah Stewart: I’ve come up with an original next principle, Angus. Burn! Which is about feedback and welcoming feedback and a sub point of this, is the message: you are not your writing. 

 

So the other day, some kids came in for work experience. Can I call them kids? Some students came in for work experience and I spoke to them about my job and writing more generally. And a question they asked was ‘what do you do when someone gives you really bad feedback about your writing?’ I think the most important and first thing that you should learn and it’s the most difficult thing that writers have to come to terms with is: you are not your writing. 

 

Yes, it has come out of your head and through your hands and is informed by the experiences you’ve had, but once it leaves you, it is a separate entity. And once you have that disconnect, that it is a separate entity, you stop being precious about it and you start thinking about the work and the work is the most important thing. 

 

So, when someone says to you ‘this is a really confusing piece of writing’ or ‘this is a really confusing essay ‘ or ‘this is a muddled blog post’, they are not saying ‘you are a terrible person.’ They are not saying ‘you’re an imbecile’ or ‘you are a failure as a writer’. They are saying ‘this is muddled’ ‘this is confusing’. It doesn't feel good to be criticised or to have negative feedback, but it’s a gift. It’s an opportunity for you to...

 

Angus Montgomery: Feedback is a gift

 

Sarah Stewart: It really is. I was thinking about the best advice I was ever given as a writer which was being told, when I was a journalist, which is probably why I hated it so much, that I was a rubbish writer. So I think I needed to hear that things weren’t very good or I would have been writing, you know, like a crazy woman for the rest of my life. You need feedback, you need to welcome that in. Because it’s always about the work, it’s never really about you, and it’s never even about you when you’re writing memoir or yoru autobiography, it’s still a separate thing.

 

Angus Montgomery: That leads, leads very neatly into my next point.

 

Which is another GDSism, something that we say quite a lot at GDS which is, ‘the team is the editor’.

 

And before I got into this, because it’s a common thing we say at GDS, I should probably give a shoutout to some of the original Creative Team and Creative Writers at GDS, who you know we’re standing on the shoulders of giants and all that stuff, a lot of certainly my ways of working and thinking have come from these people.

 

So people like Giles Turnbull, Ella Fitzsimmons, Matt Sheret, Amy McNichol and this is the thing I used to hear a lot from them, ‘the team is the editor’ and that means, to pick up on exactly your point, we’re not doing this writing on our own, like we are the writer kind of in charge ultimately of the document or the piece of writing that will go out but we’re working in collaboration with a lot of other people.

 

So we could be working in collaboration with the person who has developed the idea or product or service or whatever it is that we’re trying to communicate. We’ll be working with a comms specialist who will be thinking about what’s the best way to best place to publish this. 

 

You might be working with someone who edits the blog. And we’re working with the rest of our team as well because we’re not working in isolation. Pretty much everything that I write, I share with you and I think vice versa. 

 

And you have to, you’re nothing without an editor. A writer is nothing without a good editor. No book that you have read and no newspaper article that you’ve read and no film that you’ve seen and no commercial you’ve seen on TV is just a result of a single writer...

 

Sarah Stewart: That’s so…

 

Angus Montgomery: ...with their vision.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah, that’s so true. And I think that’s why people get so put off writing as well because they seem, people think of writers as, like, strange creatures inspired that they you know, get hit on the head by muse and are able to write perfect prose.

 

But it goes through loads and loads and loads of editing to get that kind of pure, perfect sentence. 

 

Angus Montgomery: So ‘the team is the editor’ and the editor is the unsung hero of writing as well. They are the person in the background that is making all these things work. The reason people give feedback isn’t because they want to undermine you or attack you, it’s because they want to make the work better. And you have to welcome that and find that as well. As a writer it’s really important not to isolate yourself and do it on your own, and plough away and...

 

Sarah Stewart: It is nerve-wracking to share your work and you do have to be aware of when, for example, say I’m writing a speech, it’s not unusual to have twenty people in the document all feeding in their ideas and you have to be able to distinguish: what is a ‘showstopper’ so a fact that needs to go in or something that has to come out because it’s incorrect, what’s personal opinion and what’s style. And if you have a really clear idea of that, there does come a point where you can say, ‘Actually, no, I’ve taken in everything I need to take in and I’m happy with the piece now.’

 

Just to add to that, sharing with the team and the team is the editor, of all things I’ve written and shared with you or shared with the team, I’ve never had a case where it’s been made worse by a suggestion, the work has always improved.

 

Angus Montgomery: If the person who is giving you feedback understands what this piece of writing is trying to do and that person is sort of vaguely competent, then they will give you useful constructive feedback. 

 

Sarah Stewart: I feel like maybe we’re rambling on this or maybe I’m rambling on this, but In terms of feedback givers, it’s very easy to criticise someone. It’s very easy to say ‘this isn’t good’. It takes intelligence to say what’s not quite working about it. So when you are giving feedback to someone, really consider, first of all, of course, their feelings because you don’t want to come across as, well you don’t want to be an awful person, but what’s useful for them to know about this. And we’ve got some fantastic posters around the office on how to give feedback effectively. So just make sure that if you’re required to give feedback, you’re doing it in an intelligent, kind way.

 

Angus Montgomery: In a constructive fashion.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yes, better. 

 

Angus Montgomery: and your next point?

 

Sarah Stewart:... is to ‘read’. Reading is as important as writing. If you want to be a really good writer, you have to read lots and you should read good things. You know like the classics like Nabokov, James Joyce and Jane Austen. Yes of course you should read them because they’re fantastic, and it’s a pleasure to read a good writer. 

 

But also, just  don’t be too much of a snob about it.Read a Mills and Boon book, read Fifty Shades of Grey, and again no shade on E.L James because she’s a multi-millionaire doing what she loves.

 

Angus Montgomery: It takes skill to write that stuff surely.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah. In particular I would say read poetry. Not only because I think it’s super cool, poetry can teach you a lot about conveying complex ideas in a very short space of time and you know, we’re you know kids of the digital age, we don’t have a very long attention span so understanding how to kind of compress ideas is very important.

 

But poetry can teach you a lot about the music of a sentence. And especially for speech writing, it’s particularly important. A poem can teach you about the sound of words, the meter, how a piece scans, it’s called scansion. So there’s no alchemy to writing really well, it is just about practicing writing and reading. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Any poem in particular or poet in particular?

 

Sarah Stewart: Well...good question. I would recommend the Confessional poets, so like Sylvia Plath. But actually, do you know what? Any American poet from the 1950s onwards because American poetry in particular, they have a way of, I say ‘they’ in a very general sense, I would recommend the Confessional School and the New York School in particular  – – as you’ve asked – because they just say it how it is. 

 

And also the Beat poets as well, although they can talk a lot in abstraction, you can learn a lot by their directness.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah. 

 

Sarah Stewart: So yeah. Ginsberg, Kerouac.

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah.

 

Sarah Stewart: Frank O'Hara.

 

Angus Montgomery: Very minimal viable words. 

 

My next principle, next tip, is quite a practical one. And it’s something that might not work for everyone, but I find really really helpful, which is to never start with a blank page.

 

So if you’re writing something, the scariest thing is when you kind of open up a Word doc or a Google doc or have a physical sheet of blank paper in front of you, and you’re like ‘oh my god, what do I do with this now?’ like ‘I need to turn this from this blank sheet into a speech or an article or a blog post or a presentation or whatever it might be. 

 

And that blankness is the most terrifying part of this and starting is the most terrifying part of any project and writing is no different. So the way that I deal with that is when I have a blank page in front of me, I immediately go to Google or other search engines are available obviously, and or previous pieces that I’ve done that are similar, copy paste and just throw as much text as I can on to that page, that even if it’s only tangentially similar, gives me something to work from.

 

So that I’m not starting from scratch, so that I have something to bounce ideas off of or something re-work or something that guides me in the right direction, and also takes away that fear of you know, just having a totally blank page in front of you.

 

Sarah Stewart: I do that all the time actually. If I’m writing a speech for example, I always write ‘good morning or good afternoon everyone’. And then if anyone asks me if I’ve made any progress, I can at least say I’ve made a start!

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah exactly. The vital start is there. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah. It’s psychologically important to have something down on paper. 

 

Angus Montgomery: Yeah. 

 

Sarah Stewart: You’re right.

 

Angus Montgomery: So I think it’s that, it’s that starting and then sort of flowing, flowing from there basically. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: And what’s your next principle?

 

Sarah Stewart: So my next principle I’ve entitled, ‘enough is enough’. So just don’t overdo it. Just write enough, and enough doesn’t mean writing an epic poem nor does it mean writing a haiku. Sorry, there are a lot of poetry allusions in this – but it means writing enough to get the job done. 

 

And the poet Frank O’Hara had a lovely quote about, you should read it, it’s called...it’s in a piece of writing that he called Personism: A Manifesto. And he describes writing and how effective writing is wearing a piece of clothing so it fits you perfectly, so it does exactly the job that it’s meant to do. 

 

Angus Montgomery: It’s showing the thing.

 

Sarah Stewart: And you might ‘show the thing’...it’s a very confusing analogy. 

 

Angus Montgomery: It’s a very confusing mixing, we’re mixing several metaphors here to prove a point.

 

Sarah Stewart: Yeah.

 

Angus Montgomery: But yeah. And bringing me, without really a segue in this one, but bringing us nicely nevertheless to the final point which is, ‘stay human’.

 

And this is not necessarily a writing point, this is something obviously that we should be all doing all the time in whatever work we do, but the reason I’m talking about it, and we’ve touched on this several times, writing isn’t something that we just do in isolation on our own 

 

Writing our, the writing that we do is helping one person, one human being, convey a message to another person, another human being or a group of them. And the people in that process are really really important, like the written word is important, but the people in that process are the most important parts.

 

So just when we’re dealing with people, we always try to be as nice and humble and listen as much as we can and advice and guide and all those sorts of things. But just try and do it nicely because it can be a stressful situation for people. 

So thank you Sarah.

 

Sarah Stewart: Thank you Angus. This has been nice, hasn’t it?

 

Angus Montgomery: This has been nice.

 

Sarah Stewart: So that brings us to the end of our 10 principles. This podcast will be embedded into a blog post, which will be published on the GDS blog. Please leave your comments for clear writing and any advice that you have for others.

 

Angus Montgomery: Thank you for listening to the latest episode of the GDS podcast. We hope you enjoyed it and if you want to listen to previous episodes that we’ve done or what to subscribe for the future, then please just do to wherever it is that you download your podcasts from and hit the subscribe button.

 

And we hope to have you as a listener again soon. 

 

Sarah Stewart: Farewell.